HCAU rating: 10/10
May’s HCAU Book Club pick was a novel I’d heard about in passing on YouTube which immediately piqued my interest. The Radium Girls by Kate Moore tells the true story of a group of women recruited during World War I to paint luminous dials with the seemingly harmless, but oh-so-glamorous, newbie chemical on the street – radium. At the time, radium was misunderstood and deemed by many to be an element which could improve one’s health, often kept by the well-off as a tonic to fend off minor illnesses. However, Moore communicates a narrative of scientific discovery, wherein the radium girls’ consistent exposure to radium as they paint their dials, using a technique known in the industry as ‘lip-pointing’, leads to the literal crumbling of their jaws, severe anaemia, and cancer. The novel details the women’s legal battles with the companies who employed them, and encouraged this dangerous method of radium ingestion, while also describing the lives which these women led when the radium began to emaciate their bodies.
The Radium Girls was honestly one of the best books I’ve ever read. It dealt with an event in history which I’d never heard of before, and taught me a lot about radiation and its effects on the human body – to the point where I was slightly scared lol. Usually, I enjoy non-fiction narratives for their matter-of-fact writing style and cold detachment from an event, but Kate Moore wrote this novel in a way which was more similar, in my opinion, to a fictional narrative; the relaying of the historical moment was extremely story-like. It did not feel like a non-fiction novel, which somehow made it all the more jarring when I would remind myself that everything I was reading actually happened. It made for especially jarring reading in the initial pages of the book when the girls are just beginning their careers as dial-painters and are basking in its associated glamour. There is an obvious sense of foreboding, as every sparkle of radium and the sought-after glow it emits slowly begins to ruin them from the inside out.
The timeline of the injuries felt by the women is particularly well done. Moore details each and every ailment the women suffered and does so with a narrative which matches the confusion they felt when their jaws seemed to simply crumble without explanation. Of course, when these mysterious ailments began, the women and the people around them, including their doctors, did not even consider that they may be connected with the women’s continued exposure to radium. I felt only a fraction of the frustration the women must have felt as Moore takes us through this problem-solving process which everybody involved had to endure. That being said, it was quite morbidly interesting reading what radium actually did to these women’s bodies, and the time in which it took to do it. While the descriptions were detailed and, at times, gruesome enough, the copy which I read from had inserts containing photographs of the women and some of their horrific injuries, which made my stomach turn to say the least. The time between their exposure to the radium and the materialisation of its presence in their bodies was also incredibly interesting, and made for the primary reason as to why so many of their legal battles failed.
As the ailments made themselves known years after the women were under the employ of Radium Dial and other such companies, the statute of limitations under which ex-employees were able to sue for a lack of safe working conditions had run out. Because of this, the companies responsible for the women’s suffering and, ultimately, their deaths, faced no financial repercussions for a very long time. What this novel unravels, however, are the ways in which an event like this can change workplace health and safety law forever. I loved the section at the end of the book which elaborated on the women’s lasting legacy and their impact on science for years to come. It brought the entire story to a satisfyingly bittersweet conclusion wherein the women’s suffering is finally recognised and used as an example to ensure nothing like it will ever take place again. I left this book feeling educated, saddened, scared but, most importantly, relieved that such an event of horrifying pain cannot be repeated. EVERYONE should read this book.