[Click the cover below to check it out! If you don’t see a book cover below it’s probably ad-blocker settings]
“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.”
I had this book on a wishlist for awhile, and it was eventually purchased by my SO. When they gifted it to me, they said ‘Seems like it’ll be some heavy reading, but sounds interesting!’
‘Heavy Reading’ was an understatement.
I had a baseline knowledge of what the book was about; I had initially learned of the basic story of the Radium Girls in art school, surprisingly. From what I can remember we had learned about various artists that had died of issues related to consuming toxic paint, or paint causing blindness due to dripping in the eyes, and the Radium Girls were listed due to the fact that they were watch painters that used the the act of lip-pointing their brushes, as well as other industrial workers that died from the lead paint they had used.
This book is hugely popular, so there’s not much I can say here that hasn’t already been said in various essays and videos/follow-ups of those who have read the book or know the story – so I’ll just give my general thoughts of the events and the book itself. That being said, spoilers for the rest of the review.
I told my SO that the tagline of this book should be ‘400 pages of Death’ because holy shit. [Also, 400 Pages of Death would make for a great metal song]
It seems that the main complaint about this book that it was too long, because it’s just a repeating story over and over of new victims getting sick and dying, and it’s just misery porn.
But the thing is… that definitely seems like the point. Summarizing it in a ‘x many women died in this same way’ would to me, seem like a slap in the face for the victims that the author took the time to research and write about.
If you read the author’s afterword, she explains that she went to meet the surviving family members of the Radium Girls, to talk to them and hear about their relatives, as well as being allowed to go through the belongings and letters of the women that were so terribly victimized. Most prior books or descriptions of the story of these women are mostly about the legal or medical side of things – not about the women themselves. She spoke even to the descendants of the lawyers and the doctors of the women, and learned all about their personalities, quirks, hopes and dreams.
These were young women with huge futures ahead of them. Their lives were snuffed out in awful, torturous ways. All because of a few companies that knew it was endangering them, but did nothing to stop it.
So I don’t agree with those who have said that it should have been trimmed up and summarized. Each woman written about deserved as many chapters of her story as she was granted. Yes, it’s a lot. It’s heavy, and horrible, and honestly hard to stomach. But for their memories and their stories, they went through so much worse.
I found myself crying more than once in the book. Especially with the story of Catherine Donohue, who not only found out she was expected to only live a few more months during her court case when her doctors and families had otherwise tried to shelter her from the truth, but also whose jaw bones fractured and fell out of her mouth while she was giving testimony. I can’t even begin to fathom the horror of that experience.
The descriptions of what radium does to the body, especially bones, is/was especially horrendous. There’s one part where it’s described by a doctor that a woman’s skin was so thin when she was near death that her bones could be seen glowing through her body and that is some straight up horror movie shit. Also all of the ‘health fad’ items that were pumped full of radium in those times that people were using is also something out of a horror movie. Radium jockstraps and lingerie. What. The. Hell.
More horror was of the women who essentially were in ungodly amounts of pain, their bones disintegrating in their bodies, but couldn’t do anything about it; such as more than one of the women whose vertebrae were dissolving in their own bodies. You can’t amputate that. Instead, they just had to wear body braces that held their bodies in the proper position and live on pain meds until their body was willing to finally let go and they were allowed to finally die.
Plus the fact that multiple children and family members of the Radium Girls also ended up with severe health issues due to being irradiated from their lives around/with the women.
Despite that there was so much controversy surrounding the cases involved with the various radiation/dial companies, it’s appalling to think that the same companies continued to kill people/still kill people over 100 years later; and still point fingers at everyone else but themselves. That, and while we’ve made a lot of progress when it comes to workers rights, at the same time a lot of what they experienced is still felt by workers today by abusive corporations – especially by women and minority groups.
Another thing that really distressed me about the book and the overall story is how I could easily see myself having been one of the Radium Girls if I had lived in the 20’s-30’s. They were all young women, new from the suffragette movement, ready to take on the world and looking to make good money to be independent and have fun doing something that they were proud of. I kept finding myself thinking about that while reading, and it’s honestly haunting.
I want to go into detail of a lot of aspects of the book, but really I think everyone should just read it for themselves instead.
One thing I’ll say though, is that I both read the physical book as well as listened to the audiobook. For some reason the audiobook wasn’t edited all that well? There was multiple times the sounds of the narrator deeply inhaling or swallowing weren’t edited out and was pretty jarring.
It’s a hard read to stomach through, but their history needs to be more well known and I’d recommend almost everyone to read the book.
I give Radium Girls 4/5 glowing watch faces
Lip. Dip. Paint.