It’s been a while since I’ve written a proper book review for the blog (despite having published one only a few days ago), but I think that The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women is definitely worthy of a full report.
The Radium Girls is an historical account of the women who worked in the dial painting factories at the turn of the century. Shortly after the discovery of radium by Marie and Pierre Curie, the element was touted as a magical cure-all, partly due to it’s effect on cancerous growths. As such, it was considered at the very least harmless and at best beneficial to human health. Radium’s ability to glow also made it valued as a material to paint watch dials, so that they could easily be read in the dark. Thus the radium dial industry sprung up, and the material was carefully applied to clock and watch faces by the young girls who employed a technique called lip pointing to ensure that the brushes were fine and accurate for painting. Over time, however, the radium built up in the body of the girls, and radiation poisoning made them very, very sick. This book focuses on the stories of several of these girls, and how they fought against the system to be properly compensated for the work hazards that destroyed their health and their lives.
This is definitely a sad book; the descriptions of the decaying girls are incredibly visceral. You don’t have to imagine the pain of the girls; you can almost feel it as their stories progress. Many of the girls die, in horrible, painful ways. There is tragedy contained in these pages, and in today’s world I can understand why a reader may choose to actively avoid such an experience. However, this book is also a very uplifting story as well. It is about the little guy fighting against the man, about female empowerment, and about seeking justice and creating it where there is none. Yes, there is ignorance, and pain, and death, but there is also a will to fight, to do the right thing, and to create accountability for those in power. Although I knew the tragedy that was contained in the book’s pages, I was unprepared for the fighting spirit of these factory workers and their families. Their story was laid out in an engaging and incredibly thoughtful way. The Radium Girls was absolutely compelling, and incredibly inspiring. Although this book is about the injustices of the past, it gave me hope for the future, and I highly recommend this book to everyone.