Review: The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

UK book cover for The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

Arrrrrrgh, this book. This book, this book, this book. I’ve been putting off reviewing it for ages because my notes are a garbled mess of exclamation points, page numbers and quotes, and every time I think about this book my heart (and head) hurt all over again. It’s a brilliant, brilliant book and, even if you can’t make it to the end of this mess of a review, I really encourage you to read it.

Summary: 1917. As a war raged across the world, young American women flocked to work, painting watches, clocks and military dials with a special luminous substance made from radium. It was a fun job, lucrative and glamorous – the girls themselves shone brightly in the dark, covered head to toe in the dust from the paint. They were the radium girls.

As the years passed, the women began to suffer from mysterious and crippling illnesses. The very thing that had made them feel alive – their work – was in fact slowly killing them: they had been poisoned by the radium paint. Yet their employers denied all responsibility. And so, in the face of unimaginable suffering – in the face of death – these courageous women refused to accept their fate quietly, and instead became determined to fight for justice.

Drawing on previously unpublished sources – including diaries, letters and court transcripts, as well as original interviews with the women’s relatives – The Radium Girls is an intimate narrative account of an unforgettable true story. It is the powerful tale of a group of ordinary women from the Roaring Twenties, who themselves learned how to roar.

This is technically a non-fiction work about the women who earned a living by painting luminescent dials on watches in the 1920s. I say ‘technically,’ because I have never cried this much over a non-fiction book (or any fiction book either, in fairness). The tone is a rarely-seen perfect mix of the emotional and the technical – although every single page contains near constant quotes from the women and their families, the remaining text tells the women’s story with a very sympathetic narrative.

That’s not a criticism. I never felt like I was being emotionally manipulated and it would be very, very difficult to write a book of this nature and be objective. Aside from the original horror of the women being told to put radium in their mouths in the first place, they were lied to nigh-on continuously by the company and even so-called medical experts. Their bodies collapsed, their hearts broke and their bank accounts emptied, but the company continued to Appeal, even after the Courts had already made a decision.

The tone of the text is light and very accessible, but the subject is not. Their jaw bones literally fell out of their mouths. There are photographs in the middle of the book – most are included to emphasise that these women were real, human, living people (temporarily, at any rate) but there are a few that show the size of tumours, disintegrated bones, etc. There is one particular photo that I kept turning back to and I cried every single time I looked at it. One of the women collapsed during a Court hearing after she was told that her condition was fatal (her well-intentioned doctors had decided to keep this information from her) and a photographer somehow got a shot mid-collapse. It really demonstrates the lack of knowledge provided to these women and their emotional state at that time.

There aren’t words to describe how much these women suffered. It’s not just the physical horrors, but the way they were treated. One woman was posthumously slapped with a ‘syphilis’ label even though there was no indication of any sexually transmitted disease and another woman’s body was pretty much stolen from the hospital by the organisation before the family could pay their respects. They were shunned by their communities for creating trouble for the factories that provided jobs for local people and some of the women’s husbands became jealous of their (later) wealth and threatened to gas them.

I cried on a train, I cried on a bus and I cried in a cafe. This was real, this happened and people did nothing. My eyes are watering with angry tears as I write this six weeks after I read it.

It’s very hard to separate the topic from the book, but I’m going to try because I don’t think Kate Moore’s skill deserves to be overshadowed by the tragedy she writes about. She writes very well – to say that a good 300 pages of The Radium Girls is about a legal battle, it flows, it’s interesting and it’s engrossing. She has clearly put a tremendous amount of effort into research and interviewing the relatives of the deceased, and she appears to genuinely care about the plight suffered of the radium girls. 

And Grace Fryer was never forgotten. She is still remembered now – you are still remembering her now. As a dial-painter, she glowed gloriously from the radium powder; but as a woman, she shines through history with an even brighter glory: stronger than the bones that broke inside her body; more powerful than the radium that killed her or the company that shamelessly lied through its teeth; living longer than she ever did on earth, because she now lives on in the hearts and memories of those who know her only from her story.

Please read this book. Firstly, it’s important that we acknowledge these brave and strong individuals who were so profoundly abused in so many different ways. Their bodies and their fight went on to form the basis of ground-breaking legislation that is still in place in the US today, and allowed for progress to be made with preventing radiation toxicity in others. They were ignored and shunned when they were alive, and that was not acceptable. At least now we can look back and retrospectively apologise.

Secondly, I’m desperate to talk about this book so hurry up and read it! I want to talk about the women, the people and especially how radium affected the whole town. The factory was eventually used as a meat locker – so naturally everybody who ate the meat became severely ill. After that the factory was knocked down… and the rubble was deposited around town. Dogs died prematurely, citizens developed an inordinate amount of tumours… you get the idea. I want to talk about it.

Lastly, it’s just a brilliant, brilliant book. Kate Moore is a wonderful writer who has tackled an extremely difficult subject with dignity and grace. Every second that I wasn’t reading this book, I wanted to be. It’s riveting and completely engrossing.

So there, you go. Read The Radium Girls because it’s important, discussion-provoking and enjoyable.

Read Ellie’s review of The Radium Girls at Curiosity Killed the Bookworm. 


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  2. Ellie Warren says:

    Obviously I was in shock for most of this book but I was so surprised that the town was left radioactive for so long AFTER. It's crazy and sad and those people at the companies are evil as far as I'm concerned. There is a point where they must be "shit, we did this" and it could have been tragic but handled with compassion.

    I'm surprised I haven't had nightmares about my jaw crumbling. I can't even imagine how terrible their suffering was.

  3. Evelina says:

    I know what you mean about "this book". I often have that feeling too, when I read something this big. But with this one… I was just pushed to write as much as I can and shout as loud as I can. Cause that's the least I can do for these women now, even after they're gone, we have to be their voice. I am so glad you read this! This book changes you. I keep pushing it on all my female friends to read now… people just have to know!

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