Review: “The Radium Girls” by Kate Moore

First, this review has been a long time coming. I read The Radium Girls months ago before it was published and have been meaning to write a review ever since. Between graduating, traveling, and life in general I just never got to sit down and write what this book deserves. Per usual, I’m now a little late to The Radium Girls party but I hope to have a productive discussion with those who have read it and encourage those who haven’t to do so.

But first, a little history

Before we can really dive into The Radium Girls it is important to understand both what Moore is talking about and who Moore is talking about.

The term “Radium Girls” refers to female factory workers employed at three different sites during the early 1920s to manufacture watch faces that were luminous. These women succumbed to radium poisoning due to the practices in which they were trained by the companies for which they worked. They were taught to “lip-point” which means that they would dip their brushes in radium based paint, use their mouths to “point” the brush, and then paint numbers on a watch face. To exacerbate their radium-exposure even more, the women were paid by the watch face meaning that they would try to complete as many in a day as possible. This was standard practice and the company encouraged it by insisting radium was harmless.

Of course, with our modern understanding of radioactivity we know that these women were working in hellish conditions even if they seemed acceptable to the naked eye. Eventually, these woman began deteriorate physically quite rapidly. Radium poisoning wracked their bodies in unthinkable ways and it took doctors quite some time to figure out what was even happening to them. Armed with a diagnosis, the women turned to their former employers for justification. Unfortunately, the law let these women down in way that it should not have done. Because of this, the Radium Girls were and still are important figures in the labor rights movement. Their lawsuits and struggles opened the door for employees to hold their employers legally accountable for unsuitable working conditions.

An Interesting Perspective

Kate Moore offers an interesting perspective as she tells the story of the Radium Girls. First and most obviously, she is a woman. This gives her the ability to be uniquely sympathetic to their struggles and to paint a compelling emotional narrative from start to finish. It is refreshing to read the story of women through the eyes and perspective of a woman.

Second, she is British. Should the nationality of an author affect their written work? I don’t know if it should, but it often does. Americans and Brits have an incredibly different view of the world which affects the way an author chooses to narrate their work. Here, Moore’s calm British tone lends beautifully to the story of The Radium Girls. I feel that without her calm narration the book could have easily slipped into histrionics. This plight of the Radium Girls is most definitely worth getting upset over but doing so would not have benefited the goal of the The Radium Girls

Third and finally, Moore is one of the most prepared authors I have ever read. The reader is acutely aware of just how much she knows about her subject. First encountering the Radium Girls while directing a play based on their lives, she was relentless in the pursuit of information about the girls, their doctors, their lawyers, and the companies they worked for. One almost gets the impression that Moore was friends with some of the Radium Girls which lends itself to the personal narrative of the book.

There’s something here for everyone

Now that we understand the both the historic background and the background of the author, we can not productively discuss the work itself.

In The Radium Girls Moore does a fantastic job of dispelling what I like to call the “group mentality”. Instead of discussing the Radium Girls as a large, impersonal group, Moore discusses individually. She takes the time to let the readers get to know the woman before they succumb to radium-induced illnesses and afterwards. We see their personal struggles as they get married, have children, or continue work. We read, through their correspondence and journals, of their shock, dismay, and anger at the companies who were responsible for their situation. Over and over again, Moore makes sure to point out the fact that The Radium Girl were people with names, faces, dreams, desires, and sorrow. This is refreshing coming from a book of this genre as it would be all too easy to lump the cast of characters into a mass mold. Doing so would have made authorship easier on Moore, but she obviously prefers accuracy over ease.

Central to the narrative of The Radium Girls are the doctors, lawyers, and company men involved in both perpetuating the wrong doing and ending it. Because of this, Moore gives both detailed medical and legal accounts of the proceedings that led up to a vicious legal battle. I was enthralled and horrified as I read of the physical decay and suffering these women underwent. I loved the descriptions of the medical proceedings and hung to every word as Moore detailed the doctor’s struggle to grasp what was really happening. I drank it up.

But then came the legal proceedings. The second half of The Radium Girls focuses on the legal battle between the women and the company who wronged them. With just as much detail, Moore expertly documents the legal proceedings and how the law failed the Radium Girls. I really can’t complain about it because it is so well-done, but reading about the legal proceedings was just incredibly boring to me. In fact, I almost put The Radium Girls down once I hit the bulk of the “lawyer-y” part. That may be just because I have a very STEM oriented mind. So I wouldn’t let this issue I had worry you too much. Be warned, The Radium Girls is not a beach read. It is a lengthy historical work told in flawless detail. It is difficult to read and dry in some parts, but it is overall enjoyable.

Bottom Line

Kate Moore’s The Radium Girls is a shining example of non-fiction at its best. Yes, it is lengthy and detailed but that doesn’t take away from the readers’ enjoyment. The Radium Girls is an incredibly important work telling a story that should not be forgotten.

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