Radium Girls: The Dark Side of America's Shining Women
by Kate Moore
Read by Angela Brazil
Published May 2017 by Sourcebooks
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.
In New Jersey and Illinois two dial making companies had no trouble finding young women to work as dial painters in their studios. They paid very well for the precision work that was required and those wages allowed these young girls and their families to live lives they'd never been able to have before. Plus, the positions had the added benefit to the girls of giving them an extra glow, the same glow they were painting on the dials, that made them feel more attractive because the paint included the new wonder ingredient, radium. We know now how very dangerous too much radium can be but when these girls were painting dials, radium was thought to have healing properties. It was no wonder that no one thought a thing of these young women "lip pointing" their brushes to make the tips more precise.
Before long, though, these young women (most were in their early 20's) began having unusual symptoms - terrible jaw, hip and back pain; teeth falling out and jaws disintegrating; wounds that wouldn't heal. Because no one knew that radium might be causing these problems, no doctor or dentist could initially identify what was happening. In fact, the first girl that died from radium poisoning was actually diagnosed with syphilis. It would take years before anyone really began to understand what was happening and to tie all of the women's problems to one source.
Long before the dial companies shut down though, long before the practice of lip pointing was ended, officials of the companies knew radium was dangerous. Typically, the companies did nothing. They lied, they covered up, and they fought back when the young women began suing them.
It's a heartbreaking to read about how these young women suffered and Moore doesn't hold back when describing the agony they were in as their bodies slowly broke down. Or the agony of fighting back against companies that who, even when they settled cases, paid only a pittance of what their medical care had cost and fought back against paying bills. Moore introduces readers to a lot of young women and their families and we come to know them well but companies, doctors and lawyers who covered up what was happening are equally vivid characters. Maybe the saddest thing about the whole situation is that companies continue to treat their employees much the same way.
This is a story I'd never heard of before and it's one that certainly needed to be written. In one interview with Moore, she said that the finished product was much longer than she had expected when she started writing it. This she attributed to finding much more personal material than she had expected to find - diaries, letter, court transcripts. Those things certainly made the book more readable and relatable. But what I think made the book too long was not the addition of those thing, which were well worth adding, but the extra dramatic flourishes and suppositions that Moore includes. The book often devolves into melodrama which it didn't need and, for me, actually made the book feel less real. Periodically she's added things like "one would imagine she felt..." or "her family closed the door and suffered in private." I understand that narrative nonfiction adds embellishments but this felt a step beyond that to me and colored my impression of the book. Angela Brazil's reading further emphasized the drama.
So, in the end, I would suggest that this is a story worth knowing and a book that really makes you understand the numbers of girls impacted, the agony they suffered, the battles they had to fight. It's worth reading; but maybe read it in print where you might more easily be able to ignore the flourishes.