Kate Moore’s The Radium Girls is a narrative nonfiction account following the effects of radiation poisoning on the women who once worked with radium-based paint in American factories. The newly discovered element Radium was, in the early 20th century, used to create glowing paint to illuminate watch and clock faces, but with dire results for the factory workers who painted them, as radiation poisoning due to exposure to the paint took hold. Kate Moore’s account details a combination of the factory workers’ medical travails, their fight for legal compensation from the radium companies, and their personal lives.
At first it is difficult to relate to, or even tell apart, the many different women whom Moore introduces in the opening chapters. I did not find her initial descriptions of each of the women to be very compelling, but as the book progresses and Moore is able to focus on the individual women in depth, they become more fully-depicted and engaging.
Once the opening chapters have passed and the characters are established, Moore’s thorough and careful research deepens the reader’s insight into the time period and into the lives of the women. The use of quotations from contemporary headlines and even from personal journals creates a sense of realism and a small glimpse of what it was like to live the life of one of the “radium girls”. Their strength begins to shine through when Moore allows them to speak for themselves through quotations such as “It is not for myself whom I care. I am thinking more of the hundreds of girls to whom this may serve as an example”.
These quotations also add to a gripping narrative style, as the words of the women, the doctors, and the lawyers create something close to dialogue between them, even within the constraints of nonfiction. It is difficult not to feel the injustice of the women’s situation in the face of comments such as “You don’t have anything to worry about” (completely false) and “radium will make you girls good-looking!” from company managers. The sense of immediacy is also owing also to the blunt descriptions of illness: “All the girls looked far older than they were, with faces that had curiously slack skin around their chins, where their jawbones had been removed”. This combination of the women’s own voices and frank illustrations of the effects of their unsafe working conditions both engages the reader shows the reader the importance of the radium girls’ story.
Overall, Kate Moore presents a moving and thoroughly researched portrait of the women and their struggle against the radium companies for themselves and for those still working in dangerous conditions.
Reviewed by Caroline G ’18