I was given this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
The Radium Girls by Kate Moore is a narrative non-fiction depicting the struggles of a group of women known as ‘Radium Girls’. These women painted luminous watch dials during World War One and the 20s – using paint with radium in it. They were taught that in order to produce the best quality and quickest work they should use the ‘lip, dip, paint’ method – put the brushes in their mouths to get the sharpest point.
The result of consuming so much radium, and in many cases for several years, was shocking. These women began to quite literally fall apart – radium hit hard and fast, attacking women around my age; women who should have been starting their lives, not facing the idea that they could be at the end.
This book was incredibly difficult to read, but completely worth it. I don’t think I’ve read anyone this hard to get through in a long time; these girls’ stories are so important but emotional. I ended up taking breaks between chapters in order to ground myself and process everything properly. The actions of the USRC were deplorable and seemingly never-ending; even with Catherine Donohue on the brink of death the radium company continued to appeal her court case. What started as simple denial, and even ignorance as to the actual effects of radium, turned into vicious and dangerous practices, knowingly putting more and more girls’ lives at risk for the sake of the business.
In terms of the writing, the book starts with a disclaimer from Moore, discussing her need to accurately depict the girls and do them justice. I believe that this was done very well, however it doesn’t always read smoothly – Moore has clearly done her research, and that can be difficult to weave into a narrative; particularly a non-fiction one. For the most part though, the ‘cast’ as it were –I’m reluctant to call them characters, as they were very real people and this should be remembered in reading the book – are written very sympathetically and certainly had me hooked. The facts can get heavy, but this is necessary. I can’t push enough the fact that this isn’t a story; this really happened, and the facts and figures make the emotional aspects all the more shocking – think of this as a documentary on paper.
I am in mourning for these girls. The work they did aided so many soldiers, but their pain and suffering was horrific and largely unnoticed or even ignored at the time. It can be said that they did not struggle in vain, however – they paved the way for so much progress. As Moore discusses at the end of the book, the dial painters changed workers’ rights, provided a starting point for research on other occupational hazards and dangerous substances and even potentially influencing legislation on nuclear warfare. This book brings their story to the world again and gives them a voice almost 100 years after the events began. I certainly won’t forget it any time soon.
See you soon,
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