“The company,” said one girl, “always led us to believe everything was under control and safe, but I don’t think they cared.” from The Radium Girls by Kate Moore.
My first encounter with the Radium Girls was from Deborah Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbook so I was thrilled when I discovered that I’d get the chance to read The Radium Girls through NetGalley.
Kate Moore’s handling of the topic is passionate but not indulgently so. If handled too emotionally the story would read like a contemporary newspaper article. Rather, Moore effectively offers us deep insight into the individual lives which were swept up into corporate bottom lines. The background is of course that radium’s discovery resulted in human awe, curiosity and eventually developed into an enormous business. Initial studies demonstrated what people interpreted as healthful effects but over time and by 1901 there was enough evidence to indicate that at the very least radium was something which should be handled with caution. However, the industry cut corners and the glowing properties of radium provided a usefulness during war time which resulted in enormous profits and a need for workers. Moore elegantly delves into many of the finer points which surround the greater narrative.
Although the book can be summarized as a testament to worker’s rights and the tenacity of workers in the shadow of corrupt business Moore puts the spotlight on the individuals whose lives were shadowed. For me this is what made the book. What Moore and the Radium Girls worked so hard to make a point of is that it isn’t right for good people to work hard, contribute to society and then be treated as disposable commodities when the hard work also has debilitating effects on the bodies and lives of the workers.
I don’t want to spoil the book too much even though and maybe especially because it is nonfiction. But I appreciated that Moore didn’t just cover the court battles and their eventual resolution, she delved deeper into the further reaching consequences (namely that radium’s half-life is 1,666 years and therefore it continues to effect the communities who played host to the radium companies). The book is a reminder and a call to educate advocate—which it seems is a timeless and universally relevant message.
By focusing on the titled Radium Girls, Moore shows the reader what bravery is and how advocacy cannot be effective when it is focused on short terms selfish goals because in fact it was the short term, selfish goals of the radium companies which robbed many young girls of their lives even as they gave them over in service to family, community and the hope of bettering their lives.
Despite being a difficult read emotionally, the writing is wonderful and I found it difficult to put it down. This is a vitally important read for everyone.