Sunday, March 07, 2021

23. The Radium Girls

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women. Kate Moore. 2017. 479 pages. [Source: Review copy]

First sentence (from the prologue): THE SCIENTIST HAD FORGOTTEN ALL ABOUT THE RADIUM. IT WAS tucked discreetly within the folds of his waistcoat pocket, enclosed in a slim glass tube in such a small quantity that he could not feel its weight. He had a lecture to deliver in London, England, and the vial of radium stayed within that shadowy pocket for the entirety of his journey across the sea. He was one of the few people in the world to possess it. 

Premise/plot: The Radium Girls is nonfiction; it is a narrative account of the 'radium girls'--the women employed as dial painters whose exposure to radium (radium-based paint to be exact) proved costly and deadly. It is an account of the long, long, long, long BATTLE (yes, battle) for justice to be done.

There were several plants--or factories if you prefer--that employed women as dial painters. This is narrative focuses on three of them; readers are introduced to dozens of women; I wouldn't be surprised if it tells the story of three to four dozen women at least.

The story begins in 1917 in New Jersey and concludes (well, mainly concludes) in Illinois circa 1938. To read more about the Radium Girls (wikipedia).

 My thoughts: The Radium Girls was a POWERFUL read that resonated with me from start to finish. I am so thankful that I finally got around to reading it. If you've been meaning to read it too but have been putting it off, then I encourage you to give it a chance.

I loved that it was a PERSONAL read. The women aren't mere numbers or statistics. Their lives AND their deaths had meaning; and as I believe it is mentioned either in the movie or the book their bones still are speaking to us. Even those whose voices were never "heard" in life--due to injustice and indifference--can be heard now and for the next thousand plus years. The narrative's greatest strength is that it focuses on the personal, the intimate, the real.

The read was both FASCINATING and DEVASTATING. It is hard to imagine today that no one wouldn't know that radium was DANGEROUS and to be radioactive is a BAD, BAD thing. But so much of the book focuses on this struggle between those that put MONEY, MONEY, MONEY first and foremost and those that valued HUMAN LIVES and HUMAN DIGNITY over profit, wealth, fame.

I was shocked--should I have been shocked???--at the out and out LYING and CORRUPTION. The doctors that were being paid/employed by the factories could run all their tests, do their examinations, and then say YES, YOU ARE 100% HEALTHY. NO PROBLEMS. All the while, your teeth are falling out, your face is swollen, you can hardly stand up straight, you're losing weight. Sounds like the perfect state of health, right?! In other words a lot of GASLIGHTING going on. But that isn't being fair. Not all doctors said the women were in 100% health--the best state of health they could ever be in. Some were for team misdiagnosis. Like let's diagnose you with SYPHILIS. Because that will make you quiet for sure--if you believe it. Who wants to be known to be dying from that!

But I was also encouraged by those that stood up to the big guys--the giants--and faced near impossible odds. It wasn't easy for the lawyers to take on, take up, this GIGANTIC mess of a case.

I was surprised by the resilience and attitude of some of the women. Some relied on GOD and turned to prayer and other spiritual disciplines for support, comfort, peace. Others relied more on FAMILY and FRIENDS for comfort, support, guidance. While the book mentions a few women's nerves or state of mind seemed to be negatively effected by the diagnosis, I was surprised it wasn't more. It couldn't be *easy* on one's mental health to be diagnosed with a FATAL DISEASE with NO CURE and little proven treatment. The strength and courage it would take to face each and every day is not to be discounted. We're talking tremendous physical pain with no hope of relief. Not really. Every day would be a choice--to despair or to cling to hope.

It's impossible to read this novel and not turn introspective. WHY DO I COMPLAIN SO MUCH? 

I picked up Radium Girls after watching Radium Girls the film. I don't know that there is any connection whatsoever between the book and the movie--besides the name. The film is FICTIONAL through and through. The characters are probably composites drawn from real people but not actually based on any specific people. At least I found that to be the case. I could be wrong.


  • Radium. It was a wonder element; everyone knew that. Katherine had read all about it in magazines and newspapers, which were forever extolling its virtues and advertising new radium products for sale—but they were all far too expensive for a girl of Katherine’s humble origins. She had never seen it up close before. It was the most valuable substance on earth, selling for $120,000 for a single gram ($2.2 million in today’s values).To her delight, it was even more beautiful than she had imagined. 
  • Each dial-painter had her own supply. She mixed her own paint, dabbing a little radium powder into a small white crucible and adding a dash of water and a gum-arabic adhesive: a combination that created a greenish-white luminous paint, which went under the name “Undark.” The fine yellow powder contained only a minuscule amount of radium; it was mixed with zinc sulfide, with which the radium reacted to give a brilliant glow.The effect was breathtaking. 
  • It was a craze, no other word for it.The element was dubbed “liquid sunshine,” and it lit up not just the hospitals and drawing rooms of America, but its theaters, music halls, grocery stores, and bookshelves. It was breathlessly featured in cartoons and novels, and Katherine—who loved to sing and play piano—was probably familiar with the song “Radium Dance,” which had become a huge hit after being featured in the Broadway musical Piff! Paff! Pouf!
  • For sale were radium jockstraps and lingerie, radium butter, radium milk, radium toothpaste (guaranteeing a brighter smile with every brushing) and even a range of Radior cosmetics, which offered radiumlaced face creams, soap, rouge, and compact powders. Other products were more prosaic: “The Radium Eclipse Sprayer,” trumpeted one ad, “quickly kills all flies, mosquitoes, roaches. [It] has no equal as a cleaner of furniture, porcelain, tile. It is harmless to humans and easy to use.”
  • This was radium, the wonder drug, they were using. They were lucky, they thought, as they laughed among themselves and bent their heads to their intricate work. Grace and Irene. Mollie and Ella. Albina and Edna. Hazel and Katherine and Mae. They picked up their brushes and they twirled them over and over, just as they had been taught. Lip… Dip… Paint. 
  • The girls were covered in it: their “hands, arms, necks, the dresses, the underclothes, even the corsets of the dial-painters were luminous.”
  • They glowed like ghosts as they walked home through the streets of Orange. They were unmissable.
  • By the end of the year, one in six American soldiers would own a luminous watch—and it was the Orange girls who painted many of them. 
  • In September 1922, the peculiar infection that had plagued Mollie Maggia for less than a year spread to the tissues of her throat.The disease “slowly ate its way through her jugular vein.” On September 12, at five p.m., her mouth was flooded with blood as she hemorrhaged so fast that Edith could not staunch it. Her mouth, empty of teeth, empty of jawbone, empty of words, filled with blood, instead, until it spilled over her lips and down her stricken, shaken face. It was too much. She died, her sister Quinta said, a “painful and terrible death.” She was just twenty-four years old.
  • The year 1923 was when the Charleston dance craze took America by storm, and the Radium Dial girls swiveled their knees with the best of them. The luminous glow of the radium on their hair and undulating dresses made those parties even more special.“Many of the girls,” Catherine Wolfe recalled, “used to wear their good dresses to the plant so that they would become luminous when they went out to parties later.” 
  • From the very start, Grace bore her diagnosis bravely. She had a courageous spirit and refused to let Martland’s prognosis affect her life. She had always loved her life and, if anything, she now valued it even more highly. So she tucked the diagnosis away in her mind and then carried on. She didn’t stop work; she didn’t change her habits: she kept swimming, she kept socializing with her friends, and she kept on going to the theater. “I don’t believe in giving up,” was what she said. 

© 2021 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

1 comment:

R's Rue said...

I need to read this one. Thank you.