The Roaring ’20s presented an America filled with possibility. With the Great War behind it, the U.S. was burgeoning with economic prosperity, and many Americans found these jobs in the country’s growing urban areas. Being able to leave the farm gave many women their first opportunity to contribute financially to their families — a chance even girls as young as 14 recognized as too good to overlook.
Kate Moore’s “The Radium Girls” is the true story of the Radium Luminous Materials Corporation in Newark, New Jersey, and the Radium Dial Company in Ottowa, Illinois, two firms offering work to women. Radium was a booming business in postwar America, and its national attention as a wonder substance made these companies popular places for a local woman to earn wages. Moore explains that while radium’s intrigue wasn’t an initial draw for many workers, its unique luminescent properties were undeniable — quite literally.
Radium Girls were hired to paint a radium-laden mixture onto each number of a watch face that illuminated the numbers and allowed the dial to be visible at any time. Moore describes the instructions the women received in order to paint these tiny numbers precisely: Lip. Dip. Paint.
The only way to make the brush the necessary shape was for the women to point the toxic brush between their lips and repeat these steps for every number. At the time, the scientific community wasn’t fully apprised of the now-known realities of radium, so the phosphorescent glow that enveloped the Radium Girls — clinging to their clothes, their hair, their skin and their teeth — was viewed as more of an occupational benefit than an occupational hazard.
Moore follows the women through the novelty of wandering the town with a ghostly sheen to mysterious illnesses that become their new normal. Giving these women names and stories was a priority for Moore, and while it allows her to make this situation less of a historical quandary and more of a personal tragedy, there are too many characters to keep straight. Moore offers a “who’s who” at the book’s start, but the text ends up a lot like reading a Russian novel without the passion or intrigue.
But she does offer sinister plot twists.
As the radioactivity does its inevitable worst, the women call on any health professional for assistance, many traveling to (somewhat) nearby New York or Chicago to seek specialists who, in addition to stalling and lying, offer nothing better for these tormented women whose babies are stillborn, whose jaws are rotting out, whose hips and knees lock unwaveringly and whose bodies house cancerous tumors.
Moore also offers a magnanimous lawyer who seeks the women justice from their mustache-twirling bosses. But, like a Russian novel, there are no truly happy endings when suffering is stanched only after a character has rendered everything and finds herself testifying before a court that has come to her living room because she can no longer be lifted without damaging her paper-thin skin.
While the Radium Girls’ story is cinematically dramatic — Moore did begin to research it in earnest after directing a stage production of the same narrative — the book reads tediously. Besides too many characters with pieced-together accounts, there are so many names — names of fathers, researchers, fiancés and siblings. These and other excessive details become more pronounced when Moore’s writing itself is clunky and laborious. Doubtless the language of her research influenced her writing, and perhaps that’s Moore’s point: The reality of this story was so confusing, erratic and inconsistent that her sentences reflect the same lurching, plodding pace.
Moore’s book does much to honor these women who were truly victims of the unknown facets of science and the all-too-well-known facets of corporate America. She certainly made me want the Radium Girls to triumph, I just wanted them to triumph faster.
Content advisory: “The Radium Girls” contains no questionable content.