The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women

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The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate MooreThe Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate MooreHard as it may be to fathom, once upon a time (the early 1900s), radium was thought of as a miracle substance, enhancing all it touched. And so companies flooded the market with products like radium makeup, radium water, radium butter, radium toothpaste, and radium paint. The last was used by the young women who painted luminescent numerals on watch dials (a tool that became all-important to the war effort), though they also snuck some paint now and then to paint their nails, their dresses, even sometimes in sillier moments their teeth and faces. They had no idea, of course, that they were poisoning themselves, and the story of the devastation that poison wreaked on their bodies, and their subsequent fight for compensation from the companies who knew of the substance’s danger makes for compelling, infuriating, heartbreaking reading in Kate Moore’s meticulously researched The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women.

One of the many strengths of Moore’s book is the way in which she brings these young women alive, giving us glimpses into their lives, describing their “jaunty” walk or “twinkly blue eyes and fashionably bobbed hair,” their hopes and dreams, their families. Because of just how alive they are on the page, The Radium Girls is replete with moments of poignancy, as when, for instance, young Katherine Shaub on her first day of work at Radium Luminous Materials Corporation notes how “the [radium-laced] powder got everywhere; there was dust all over the studio. Even as she watched, little puffs of it seemed to hover in the air before settling on the shoulders or hair of a dial-painter… it made the girls themselves gleam.”

This was no poetic turn of phrase. The girls literally glowed thanks to their work, the powder covering their clothes and working its way underneath onto their skin. At night they “glowed even brighter from the radium against the dark windows: a workshop of shining spirits laboring through the night.” Time and again the girls revel in this unique “perk” of the job, playing silly games in dark rooms, wearing their good dresses to work so they’d shine later at whatever party they were attending. Coming from the modern perspective of knowing just how dangerous radium is, each time you read of them giggling over the powder’s effect, or being called the “ghost girls” as the townspeople sometimes did, or of them painting their nails and cheeks, you want to reach into the book’s pages, reach through time and tell them to stop, warn them that they were killing themselves all the more quickly.

But of course you can’t. And so soon you reach the horrifying consequences, which — fair warning — Moore does not shy away from detailing. The effects first showed up in the teeth, and soon one girl after the other was visiting their dentist complaining of pain in their mouth. The dentists dutifully removed what seemed to be “the bad tooth,” but the pain continued, even spread, and soon the dentists were removing even more teeth, or worse, the teeth were falling out themselves, along with pieces of the their jaw. The torment is unrelenting for these poor women, and you can’t help but ache for them as they suffer for a reason that is a complete mystery to them.

Though perhaps not to everyone. Because as the medical problem proliferate, Moore’s attention turns to the two companies most involved and their attempts to disassociate themselves from any culpability. As much as the girls’ plight breaks your heart, the companies’ actions will infuriate you as Moore details the their lies and stonewalling once the girls are forced to sue to try and get some financial help for their steep medical costs. I confess, at several points during this section my margin notes deteriorated to simply scrawling “assholes” next to particularly egregious actions by the company executives or lawyers.

All of this — the girls getting hired, their first few wonderful years of independence and uniqueness, the deterioration of their bodies, the fight against the company — is tautly, sharply related in economical fashion. Even better, that economy doesn’t rob The Radium Girls of style, as Moore’s prose is vivid throughout and peppered with some beautifully lyric moments, such as one of the moments where she describes how the radium powder made the girls glow: “The girls shone like the watches did in the darkroom, as though they themselves were timepieces, counting down the seconds as they passed. They glowed like ghosts as they walked home through the streets of Orange.” Or when a doctor overlooks a clue when a set of X-rays he pulls from a drawer were fogged from having been stored with a few scraps of jawbone from one of the girls: “it was a message, though little did Knef know it, but its meaning was unclear. Mollie Maggia was still voiceless, even after all this time.”

The Radium Girls should be mandatory reading for anyone arguing against “intrusive job-killing” workplace regulations, seeing as how the lack of such regulations made “killing” a reality rather than a metaphor. And in fact, the girls’ historic court case led to some of the earliest laws protecting workers from dangerous job conditions. But Moore doesn’t allow the women at the center of this story to simply stand as statistics or abstract examples. As they, one after the other, die horribly lingering deaths at 19, 22, or 24, you feel each loss of a living, breathing girl cut down in the prime of her life. Each its own tragedy that infuriatingly could have been prevented. I won’t soon forget the Radium Girls, either the book or the girls themselves.

~Bill Capossere


The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate MooreA brilliant work of nonfiction, not to be missed. Kate Moore brings each woman vividly to life so that we feel the weight of each loss. There are triumphs, too, but always tinged with sorrow, since some of the women didn’t live to be vindicated and others were too ill to enjoy their victories for long. The Radium Girls is beautifully written and as suspenseful as any legal thriller, and even more compelling because it’s all true.

~Kelly Lasiter

Publication date: May 2, 2017. The incredible true story of the women who fought America’s Undark danger. 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. Written with a sparkling voice and breakneck pace, The Radium Girls fully illuminates the inspiring young women exposed to the “wonder” substance of radium, and their awe-inspiring strength in the face of almost impossible circumstances. Their courage and tenacity led to life-changing regulations, research into nuclear bombing, and ultimately saved hundreds of thousands of lives…

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is lately spending much of his time trying to finish a book-length collection of essays and a full-length play. His prior work has appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other journals and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of several Best American Essay anthologies. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, co-writing the Malazan Empire re-read at Tor.com, or working as an English adjunct, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course, the ultimate frisbee field, or trying to keep up with his wife's flute and his son's trumpet on the clarinet he just picked up this month.

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KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

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7 comments

  1. I have GOT to get my hands on a copy of this. Thank you for yet another excellent review, Bill!

    • thanks–I think you’d, well, not “enjoy” it as it’s tragic in so many ways, but you’ll be glad you read it

      • I’ve got a baseline knowledge with the subject matter — which is indeed tragic, in the truest sense of the word — but I’d like to know more than I do, and this sounds like a solid resource.

  2. sandy ferber /

    Now THIS is what I call a glowing review!

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