My first review to kick off 2020 is Kate Moore’s non-fiction work, The Radium Girls. We follow two groups of women, one in Newark, New Jersey and the other in Ottawa, Illinois, who during the First World War worked in factories painting watches and military dials. The substance they used contained radium and the girls were taught to place their brushes in their mouths in order to point them. At first, the job is lucrative and glamourous, until the women slowly start becoming sick with mysterious illnesses. It is discovered the radium in the paint is settling within their bones and is slowly killing them. However, when their employers deny this, the women are left with no choice but to take them to court.
Moore sheds light on a little-known period of US history in an engaging and lively manner. Her writing is very evocative, capturing the initial excitement of the factories and the mood at the time. She also doesn’t shy away from going into depth the disturbing and heart-breaking effects the radium had, and the accompanying photos are at times hard to look at. Yet Moore breaks down medical jargon and complicated laws with ease, making the book very accessible. It is also compulsively readable. At times the book read like a courtroom drama, and there were plot twists at the end of chapters some thriller writers would have loved to come up with. They seemed so ridiculous and implausible to be true, and the fact they were just added to the frustration felt on the women’s behalf.
The women are centre stage in the book, with Moore going into depth before and after their illnesses. There are quotes from the women as well as their family and friends; letting them tell their story which companies had been trying to suppress. It felt like Moore was giving these women the chance to speak, giving them a platform where they could share what has happened. Admittedly, at the beginning I was a little unsure: there were so many women affected, and with some having similar names I was worried I wouldn’t keep up. But the more the book progresses, the more I developed an attachment to them and it was a non-issue. I didn’t want the book to end as I had become so engrossed in their different journeys.
I would highly recommend The Radium Girls, even if you are not necessarily a non-fiction reader. It is a fascinating, powerful story, and one a lot of people should hear, told in a concise, effective manner. If all my books are as good as this in 2020, I will be a very lucky lady.
The Radium Girls is published by Simon & Schuster and you can find more information here.