Book Review: Radium Girls by Kate Moore

Rating: 5/5
Genre: Non-fiction
Goodreads description:

The Curies’ newly discovered element of radium makes gleaming headlines across the nation as the fresh face of beauty, and wonder drug of the medical community. From body lotion to tonic water, the popular new element shines bright in the otherwise dark years of the First World War.

Meanwhile, hundreds of girls toil amidst the glowing dust of the radium-dial factories. The glittering chemical covers their bodies from head to toe; they light up the night like industrious fireflies. With such a coveted job, these “shining girls” are the luckiest alive — until they begin to fall mysteriously ill.

But the factories that once offered golden opportunities are now ignoring all claims of the gruesome side effects, and the women’s cries of corruption. And as the fatal poison of the radium takes hold, the brave shining girls find themselves embroiled in one of the biggest scandals of America’s early 20th century, and in a groundbreaking battle for workers’ rights that will echo for centuries to come.

Written with a sparkling voice and breakneck pace, The Radium Girls fully illuminates the inspiring young women exposed to the “wonder” substance of radium, and their awe-inspiring strength in the face of almost impossible circumstances. Their courage and tenacity led to life-changing regulations, research into nuclear bombing, and ultimately saved hundreds of thousands of lives…

Radium Girls is one of the best books that I’ve read so far this year. Until I read this book, I hadn’t read a ton of non-fiction recently, but this one really pulled me in because of the way it is written.

I was not familiar with the story of the Radium Girls before picking up this book because it just wasn’t something I was taught in school. I read this for a book club and everyone else there said the same thing. So, if you’re unfamiliar with this story like we were, the Radium Girls are a group of women who painted the dials on watch faces with a special paint made from radium that made the watch faces glow in the dark.

Because radium was so rare at the time, they were instructed to put the paintbrush in their mouth to form a fine point, rather than dipping the brush in water and wasting valuable paint.

The women started developing health problems, mainly in their bones. This was because when the body is exposed to radium, it confuses it with calcium and the radium gets absorbed into the bones and then begins eating away at them. 

Once the companies realized this was happening, they didn’t do anything about it. They kept on instructing the women to do the “lip pointing,” and even went so far as having a company doctor lie to them about their health.

Many of the doctors actually blamed their deaths on syphilis, even the ones who had never even had sex.

Eventually the women took the companies to court, and laid the way for the workplace health and safety regulations in place today.

Ok. So why do I love this book so much?

The author, Kate Moore, does such a brilliant job of making this real story read like a novel. Rather than just laying out the facts, she tells the story through the women.

There were three dial companies doing radium painting at the time, and Radium Girls follows the story of the women at two of them, one in Orange, New Jersey, and the other in Ottawa, Illinois.

By telling the story through these women, it becomes much more personal. The author said in an interview once that the reason she wanted to write this book was because most of the books about the Radium Girls focused on the legal aspects or the science of it, but none of them really focused on the people actually involved. She wanted to tell the story of the people who actually lived it. 

It was clear she did a lot of research before writing the story. She visited both locations, visited local libraries, interviewed family members, and even found diary entries.

You really get to learn about these women, not just about their occupation and aftermath of radium poisoning, but their real lives. For example, one of the women really wanted children and you learn all about her and her family.

Often history books only focus on the aspect of people’s lives that are significant in the context that they are famous for. This book does the opposite and shows us what these women were like, what they cared about, and their dreams.

It’s just so wonderfully written.

After I read Radium Girls I was so hooked on the story that I found myself seeking out other books about this incident. I ended up reading a YA novel, called Glow by Megan E. Bryant, that switches between present day and letters from one of the girls, which I would recommend if you read this story and are looking for more.

 

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