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The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

BOTTOM LINE: Chock full of fascinating historical facts about labor rights reform and real-life events. Highly recommend.

Genre: Nonfiction
Publication Date: 2 May 2017
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Synopsis from the Publisher:

“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: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women 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…”

My Thoughts: The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women is not only a cautionary tale or a documentary on what the girls went through after their employment. It is a history lesson properly done, complete with detailed, well-documented research and personages that become more than just names on a page. Ms. Moore tackles the girls’ stories as well as adding historical, socioeconomic, legal, and cultural details that provides context to their stories. In so doing, she brings the girls back to life to tell their story one last time.

Reading The Radium Girls in our post-Cold War era is an exercise in separating one’s current knowledge and experiences from one’s reading experience to avoid letting them taint one’s feelings or reactions to the girls’ actions. After all, just as laudanum and cocaine were popular medicines in their day, we cannot fault the girls for getting excited about working with radium all day or the rest of the country for the popularity of radium-filled beauty products. The casualness with which everyone, including scientists, handled radium is cringe-inducing to the modern reader but perfectly acceptable during the time of the events. We cannot condemn them nor find fault with them for their actions. It is a surreal reading experience though to read their story and how they would paint their nails and eyelids with radium powder and eat their lunches next to their work stations, etc., and not shudder at their innocence. This then makes you wonder what we are currently doing or using or eating that future generations will view in a similar light. It is a sobering thought.

Where the story takes off though is in the legal battles the girls fight in order to obtain a modicum of financial relief. Again, the modern reader is at a disadvantage because the idea of workers’ compensation or of a company liable for the long-term health and welfare of its employees is an ingrained right in our minds. We have plenty of modern-day context in which companies are held responsible for the ill effects of chemicals or processes used in everyday work environments. To not hold a company responsible is inconceivable to our modern mind. Yet, most of the Radium Girls did feel this way for a long time. Whether their lack of litigious nature (at least initially) is a sign of their innocence or a commentary on the suspicious nature of modern society, that is yet to be determined.

The story is not all innocence though, for the businesses for which the girls worked went to great lengths to prove their own innocence in the lawsuits and protect themselves from culpability. Their actions are simultaneously disturbing and yet not surprising, as a company’s sole purpose is to make money and the radium dial business was big money. Seen from their perspective, they were just trying to maintain their profitability. However, the callousness of capitalism is still disturbing to watch unfold, especially when a company’s employees’ lives are on the line.

Throughout the book, Ms. Moore showcases the girls’ resilience in the face of unspeakable pain and disfigurement. She packs no punches in her descriptions either, assaulting the reader with sparse, take-no-pity descriptions of their illnesses. Even readers with cast-iron stomachs will find themselves nauseous at times, not just because of the descriptions but also because this is not a horror story but real life.  Still, feeling sick to one’s stomach is only mildly inconvenient when compared to everything the radium girls faced and suffered at the hands of the court as well as with their health.  In The Radium Girls, Ms. Moore makes sure that the legacy of the Radium Girls lives on not just in OSHA-mandated policies and procedures but in the knowledge of their dreams and battles that all readers take away of the girls who once thought their future was a bright and shiny as the powder they painted onto watch dials.

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