Title/Author/Pg: The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore, 480pg
Date Published: May 2, 2017
Genre: Narrative Non-Fiction
I was going to post a piece of work inspired by this book, but I haven’t had time this week. Hopefully this weekend I will have some time to do some Radium Girls-inspired art, but for now I will offer my thoughts so far on this non-fiction novel.
Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore tells the story of the women who painted watch dials with radium paint during World War I and into the 1920s. Radium was a relatively new element, and no one really understood the health implications (while dangerous, many thought radium was actually healthy!). The women who painted watch dials and faces used a small paintbrush, which would get stiff with paint after a few strokes, so they would lick the brush to get the tip pointy and precise again. Thus, the radium accumulated in their bodies and many of the girls and women got radium poisoning, but few correctly identified this, and their employers did not want to acknowledge the danger of radium.
As the novel has advanced, I’ve become more horrified and fascinated by the story of these women, as well as the medical ignorance of the time. It is crazy to look back and see how little we know, and understand that there is so much we don’t know right now. But I also notice continuity in certain elements–the desire of corporations to push everything under the rug, the lack of worker’s rights, as well as a clean and safe working environment. Bad business has continued into the 21st century (no surprise!), leaving us today with many companies and industries making poor and unjust decisions in regards to both their workers and product.
The way Moore tells this story really keeps you interested and invested in each character. At first I was annoyed that she kept introducing us to so many new girls, but as I’ve read onwards, I understand that it was to emphasize the sheer quantity of people who were affected. We see girls of every background and age who were drawn into this industry, as well as their family, many who came to work at the radium factories, or were affected afterwards when the workers got sick.
While horrifying and slightly disturbing to read, I think this novel is an important read, shedding light on a group of women who have been overlooked by history. Moore’s narrative style keeps the pages turning, but this novel remains hard-hitting and inspires strong feelings with every page.