Setting: New Jersey and Illinois 1917-1939
My copy came from: I borrowed the hardback from my mom.
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Review: Disturbing, horrifying, and enthralling. I couldn’t put this down despite all of the highly disturbing images. The Radium Girls by Kate Moore tells the stories of the women who worked in the radium companies painting dials with radium paint. The paint wasn’t just made of radium, but rather radium was an ingredient in the paint to make it “glow”. In order to get the paintbrush to have the right point for painting, the girls would put the paintbrush in their mouth to shape the brush. So, in the course of their job they were actually ingesting radium.
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.
They were told that the radium was harmless, and not only harmless, but that it actually was a health benefit. After a few years, the girls discovered that their jaws and teeth were in a lot of pain, and their jaws literally started to fall apart. There are many stories of the various girls visiting the dentist and the dentist pulling bits of bone out of their mouth, as the radium would disintegrate their bones. (Sorry for that image, but the book is highly disturbing. I don’t recommend reading this right before a dentist appointment. I actually did that, and had a tough time in the dentist chair as I kept picturing these poor women.)
From spontaneous fractures to miscarriages, mysterious ailments, and death, what the girls suffered was horrific. The Radium Girls does not shy away from the disturbing details of their health, and it does take a strong stomach to be able to read this book. I cannot even begin to imagine the pain and trauma that these girls and their families went through. One girl was told she had syphilis, as even though these girls were in evident pain, with visible health issues, no one was really taking them seriously. A few doctors were concerned, but all of the information about radium at this time was positive. The book expounds on where all of this positive propaganda came from, and the depths of greed that these radium companies had was just astounding.
The Radium Girls tells the story of the many girls that worked at these radium companies, and how they discovered that the radium was causing their sicknesses, and it also covers all of the legal battles they went through to get money to cover their health bills and also for better working conditions for workers. These legal battles were interesting and it was very shocking all of the different ways these radium companies were trying to hide what was happening.
“I’m angry,” said one of Peg’s sisters. “They knew she was full of radium. And then they lied.”
“Every family has sadness and grief,” Jean said steadily. “But Margaret’s death was unnecessary.”
That was the tragedy. Radium had been known to be harmful since 1901. Every death since was unnecessary.
One of the issues I had with The Radium Girls is that there were so many characters, that I couldn’t remember who every character was. The book is split between talking about radium companies in New Jersey and Illinois, and I had trouble remembering which girl worked for which company.
But all in all, this is a fascinating book that tells a disturbing story that everyone should read. I recommend it for everyone because we need to know about the women who came before us and their stories and struggles. Read The Radium Girls and be horrified at what these girls went through, what these companies did in the name of profit, and what was done with the radium before everyone finally realized it was deadly.
Bottom Line: Horrifying and fascinating. Quite the disturbing read!