Nonfiction November Review: The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, Kate Moore

Published May 2nd, 2017

In America during the early half of the twentieth-century, radium was all the rage. It was heralded as a health-giving substance and featured in products such as: cosmetics, lingerie, tonic water, toothpaste, and wrist-watches. It is the latter-along with wartime navigational instruments-that led to a booming factory industry. The numerals on these watches and instruments were painted with radium in order to be visible in the dark. Being a dial-painter at such a factory became a coveted position for hundreds of young women. It was viewed as a glamorous job; the work was well-paid and the factories were full of laughter, talk, and female camaraderie. Many family members even worked alongside one another, and lasting friendships were formed.

Each day, these girls would be given a little pot of radium to mix with paint, which they then dipped their brushes into before tracing the numerals. This was delicate work, and the paintbrushes were not fine-tipped enough to complete it. In order to remedy this, the girls would place the brushes between their lips to create a finer point before dipping it back into the paint. Lip, dip, paint, lip, dip, paint over and over again, countless times a shift. They were slowly ingesting small amounts of radium. Not only that, they would be covered in it by end of each workday. The fine dust settled in their hair, under their nails, and on their clothes; they carried it with them out into the streets and home to their families. In the dark, these girls glowed like ghosts, as the radium let its presence be known. But what could possibly be the harm? After all, wasn’t radium supposed to be a miracle substance with a long list of health benefits?

Yet, what else could explain why so many of these formally healthy young women were starting to fall ill? Some of the girls began to complain of toothaches, only to go on to have most of their teeth pulled, their dentists baffled by the complete decay of their jaws. Others developed anemia, trouble walking, intense pain in their legs or in their backs. So many died unexplainable, early deaths. All the while their employers continued to claim that there was nothing to worry about: radium was completely safe.

These girls were so young; their futures stripped away by this indifferent, tenacious substance. Radium ravaged these women’s bones, continuing to wreak its havoc even after they were dead and buried. The effects of the radium itself would be heartbreaking enough. It is the decades-long coverup by the powers that be-who knew about the dangers of radium as early as 1901-that is the true tragedy.

The pain, suffering, and horrors the radium girls were faced with are almost unimaginable. The fact that they chose to persistently fight for justice-not just for themselves but for hundreds of other workers as well-in the midst of their personal agony is remarkable. Their friendship and unity as well as their hope and resolve is beyond inspiring. They courageously took on Goliath to win the victory they deserved, and in so doing changed workplace regulations for good. This is not an easy read-at times it is downright harrowing-but it is richly rewarding and incredibly interesting.

It’s no exaggeration to say that this is one of the best nonfiction books I have ever read. I was admittedly a bit skeptical going into this, merely because I didn’t believe The Radium Girls could quite live up to the glowing reviews and heaps of praise surrounding it, but it more than does. It is engagingly written, impeccably researched, and utterly unputdownable.

I really enjoyed and connected with Kate More’s writing, but more importantly I appreciated the fact that this book was not about her or her thoughts. She lets the girls and the facts surrounding their cases speak for themselves, instead of inserting herself into the story. That said, it is clear how much these women and their stories have affected her. As she relates, she felt compelled to shed light on their lives, their hardships, and their bravery. She writes in the author’s note that:

I wanted to walk in step with the women and describe each moment as though it was happening here and now. I hoped that, in this way, readers would be able to engage with the twists and turns of this decades-old history and to empathize with the individual radium girls. I wanted the women to feel like friends. Naturally, I was mindful of a key responsibility: to do justice to the girls’ true story.

And do justice she did. Because of her, these women will be known by name instead of relegated to the footnotes of history. It is this first-hand perspective that makes The Radium Girls so effective and compelling. I felt as if I got to know Grace, Peg, Sarah, Catherine, et al. I felt their dreams turn to fears, was inspired by their hope and determination, cheered for their victories, and mourned their losses.

This is not a dry nonfiction account, but a vividly unforgettable slice of history. It reads like fiction, and oh how I wish that it were. The Radium Girls is equal parts infuriating and uplifting. It is one of the most emotionally moving works of nonfiction that I have come across. I shed actual tears at several points in my reading. I hope more people will be introduced to these women and be inspired by their stories.

The Radium Girls may have shattered my heart, but it also left me with a sense of inextinguishable hope. It is a luminous work of nonfiction about a remarkable group of women whose spirit and determination shone through the darkest of circumstances. It is an unforgettable read that I cannot recommend highly enough.



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