The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women by Kate Moore
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.
These womens’ story is heartbreaking and absolutely needs to be told.
The Radium Girls worked in luminous paint factories across the United States. Factories like these existed worldwide, but it was the American plants that told the girls to follow a process called “lip, dip, paint”. This process involved sticking the paintbrush in their mouth and twisting it to get a nice point, dipping it in the paint, and painting the dials. The girls weren’t permitted to use water – it would waste too much of the precious substance. They did this over and over again. Day after day.
The were called “ghost girls” because like the radium paint, they glowed in the dark.
Most of these women died young, and they were in paint for years. Kate Moore tells the stories of a handful of different girls, describing their lives in good times and bad. From the early days fur coats and dance parties to the moments when they’re picking bits and pieces of their disintegrated jaw bones out of their mouths. It’s written so well that even nearly 100 years later, I’m enraged and distraught for all the suffering that they all went through. Radium has a life of 1600 years – as Moore noted at one point… these girls’ bones are still glowing.
This isn’t a historical disposition, though. It’s a book review. So the book.
The Radium Girls is a long book, but it’s gripping. The story is told very well. Non-fiction can be difficult because it tends to try and tell a lot of things all at once. Historical non-fiction in particular can drag if it’s not done well because there tends to be a lot of names and dates. There are a lot of names and dates, but they don’t get in the way of the story. Moore introduces a lot of girls and just like any story with a large cast, it takes a few moments to get acquainted with everyone. I told someone early on that this is one of the top three non-fiction books I’ve ever read, and I stand by that.
It was excellently written and, like I said, heartbreaking, and even if you only pick up one non-fiction book each decade, this one is worth considering.