Book Review: The Radium Girls
By: Kate Moore
Published By: Sourcebooks
Publication Date: May 2, 2017
Page Count: 480
Source: Purchased by Reviewer
Adult - Nonfiction
There are so many aspects of history that are unknown to me. Even though I have a degree in History, there is no way I can know every single event, person, and detail throughout time. Focusing on the US alone wouldn't make the task easier as there are so many stories out there that deserve to be heard. Finding stories like this one has become a quest of sorts for me. I crave hearing stories from those who previously were silent. I want to understand the history of women and ethnicities other than my own.
Somehow in all of my studies concerning World War I, I had never once heard of the use of radium. Sure, I knew women were engaged in jobs within war industries, but I never could have imagined that something like painting dials for watches and instruments with radioactive substances was happening. It seems like such a huge no-no to me that I couldn't understand what would have compelled these women to put themselves in such danger for a paycheck. I was appalled to learn that most factories proclaimed that radium was perfectly safe, even knowing that their workers used the process of lip pointing to paint the dials. Lip pointing is pretty much what it sounds like - women would use their mouths to point their paintbrushes to make sure the numerals they painted were precise. This practice introduced small amounts of radium into the body which would prove to be a fatal mistake.
These women were not just names on a page to me. As I read their stories, each one came to life and made a mark on my heart. They were daughters, sisters, wives, and mothers. They had families who loved them and dreams to fulfill. Many of them worked in the factory only to show support for the war effort while others found that they enjoyed the artistic work and the camaraderie they found with the other dial painters. Like with many things in life, the job of the dial painters seemed too good to be true and when the moment of realization arrived, it was too late to save the women.
Death from radium poisoning is brutal on the body and the soul. Each of these women was in excruciating pain which led to exorbatant medical bills and legal fees. The companies that employed these women refused to own up to any wrongdoing and often blamed the victims themselves. The companies refused to pay for treatment and did everything they could in court to get out of any responsibility for the tragic fate of their current and former employees. This stance was certainly motivated by greed, but I also wonder how much was motivated by the fact that the vast majority of the victims were women in a time period when women were not seen to have as many rights as men.
Technology and advancements are often wonderful things that make our lives easier and better. Sadly, while radium did save lives in WWI, it came with a heavy price on the home-front. It makes me wonder how many of our current technologies will later be seen as something that causes health problems. Is progress worth sacrificing the lives of innocent workers?
If you're interested in WWI home-front experiences, women's history, or industrial history, this is a must read. The Radium Girls is a fascinating, tragic look into the lives of ordinary women who left a bittersweet legacy behind as they fought for the rights of workers in a time when so many wanted to silence their voices. Kate Moore did an outstanding job of putting faces and names on this tragedy. This novel made me want a time machine so I could go back and rewrite history, saving these women from their horrible fate.
One Last Gripe: There were a lot of people to keep straight. I appreciated the list of figures in the beginning, but it would derail my reading flow to have to stop and look someone up.
Favorite Thing About This Book: Learning a new aspect of WWI era life
First Sentence: The scientist had forgotten all about the radium.
The incredible true story of the young women exposed to the “wonder” substance of radium and their brave struggle for justice...
As World War I raged across the globe, hundreds of young women toiled away at the radium-dial factories, where they painted clock faces with a mysterious new substance called radium. Assured by their bosses that the luminous material was safe, the women themselves shone brightly in the dark, covered from head to toe with the glowing dust. With such a coveted job, these “shining girls” were considered the luckiest alive—until they began to fall mysteriously ill. As the fatal poison of the radium took hold, they found themselves embroiled in one of America’s biggest scandals and a groundbreaking battle for workers’ rights.
A rich, historical narrative written in a sparkling voice, The Radium Girls is the first book that fully explores the strength of extraordinary women in the face of almost impossible circumstances and the astonishing legacy they left behind.