Awarded on Goodreads.
In an author’s note at the end of the book, Kate Moore says “I wanted to walk in step with the women and describe each moment as though it was happening here and now.” She succeeded.
The Radium Girls is an intense non-fiction ride into the the story of the young, largely uneducated women hired to paint luminous clock dials in the years following World War I. Through this work, each slowly ingested a steadily increasing amount of radium that would later wreak havoc on her health. And all this nearly 20 years AFTER the first suspicions about the danger of radiation were known by scientists. In a time of pro-business government and up against big companies full of heartless male managers, these workers were taught that the best way to ensure a finely pointed tip on their paintbrushes was to put the brush in their mouths to shape it. In fact at this time, many believed radium to be a health and beauty aid.
Reading about resulting health issues these women faced is not for the faint hearted. Teeth falling out, intense bone pain, infertility, damaged children, cancer, disintegrating jaws and, for most, early death. And for years, these women fought to hold their company accountable in an era when worker compensation laws didn’t yet exist.
Their bravery and commitment eventually paved the way to the legal and workplace protections we enjoy today. As well as voluntarily submitting to scores of medical procedures, which provided much of the knowledge we now have about the effects of radiation on the body.
It’s a remarkable story, largely forgotten. And I am grateful to the author for telling it. I also have to say that although the book is very readable, I could have done with a bit less of the detail. The author’s commitment to “describe each moment” turned out to be a detriment at times. Especially because there were so many women to follow that, to me, it was difficult to keep them separate. Instead, I found they morphed into one amorphous group with a single deeply troubling story. At the end of the book, there are photos of many of the “radium girls”. I wish those photos had been sprinkled throughout the book – to help me keep track of who was whom. Overall, definitely worth the read.