I've been meaning to read "The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women" by Kate Moore for quite some time now. Thankfully, so did my friend who organizes our "Clever Name" book club: she made it our October selection, which gave me the nudge to finally pick it up and read it on my trip west to visit my parents last week. I started the book on the flight there, and finished it on the flight back home. ;) We'll be discussing it (as well as September's book, "The Midnight Library" by Matt Haig -- which I read late last year and reviewed here) at a Zoom meeting in early November.
When Pierre and Marie Curie discovered radium in 1898, it was regarded as a miracle substance. During the First World War, radium was mixed into paint to create luminous dials for airplane instruments, clocks and watches. Hundreds of women -- mostly teenaged girls -- were hired for highly coveted, well-paid jobs as dial painters for companies in Orange, New Jersey; Waterbury, Connecticut; and Ottawa, Illinois (NOT Ottawa, Ontario, the capital of Canada! lol -- we drove by there on a road trip to Iowa via Michigan and northern Illinois a few years ago and were quite amused to see the signs pointing the way to "Ottawa."). The women were taught to put their paintbrushes in their mouths to hone them to a fine point, dip them in the radium-laced paint, paint -- and then repeat the process, over and over and over again. At night, their clothing, skin and hair would glow from the accumulated radium dust. The girls would even paint glow-in-the-dark designs on their skin and teeth to entertain each other.
And then, one by one, they started getting sick. And one by one, they began dying -- prolonged, horrible, painful deaths.
This is a horror story of sorts, made all the more horrific because it really happened. What makes it even more horrific is the companies' response -- or rather, the lack thereof -- to their workers' plight. They lied to the girls about the hazards of working with radium -- even after the hazards became well known and documented -- they refused to disclose the results of medical tests they required the workers to undergo, and they did everything they could to cover up what was going on -- to avoid acknowledging responsibility or compensating their former employees for their pain and suffering, or even to improve conditions for current employees. It took many long years for "the Radium Girls" to receive a modicum of justice (and some did not live to see or benefit from it), but their courage and tenacity led to changes in workplace safety regulations, a greater awareness of the hazards related to nuclear weapons and energy, and ultimately saved countless thousands of lives.
From an ALI perspective, as you might expect, many of the women experienced infertility, miscarriages, stillbirths and premature births. "...how many women were crippled or suffered the unique pain of childlessness as a result of their poisoning is also unknown," Moore writes in the book's epilogue. Poignantly, she also writes there how one Radium Girl's nephew "picked his way through the items Pearl kept in her loft: a baby stroller, a crib -- strange things for an old lady to have in her attic, but perhaps Pearl found herself unable to let go of these final traces of the many children she had wanted, but could never have."
This is a long and detailed book, written in a very readable style, focusing on the personal stories of some of the key women involved. Some readers will find it all fascinating and gobble up all the details -- but I can understand that it might be a lot for others to absorb. My main issue/complaint: there's a very large cast of characters spread over several locations, and it was sometimes difficult to keep them all straight. It probably would have helped to have them listed at the front of the book for easy reference.
Whether or not you read "The Radium Girls," it's a story that deserves to be much better known than it is, and Kate Moore deserves credit for bringing it to our attention.
4 stars on Goodreads.
This was Book #51 read to date in 2021 (and Book #3 finished in October), bringing me to 142% of my 2021 Goodreads Reading Challenge goal of 36 books. (This exceeds my best-ever showing in the Goodreads Challenge since I joined in 2016 -- which was 50 books read in all of 2019.) I am (for the moment, anyway...!) 23 (!) books ahead of schedule. :) You can find reviews of all my books read to date in 2021 tagged as "2021 books."