As a child, losing teeth was a common occurrence.
There was a distinctly unusual feeling, I'm sure you remember, of a tooth coming loose. Held on by a string of nerve or sinew (not a dentist, here). You could wiggle your tongue in the space between your gum and the tooth, pushing it out of its gap.
Then, one day — snap. It would come loose. And for a split second, there was that feeling of panic. Yes, you knew losing your baby-tooth was just a normal process, but for the briefest of moments your mind went: this is not supposed to be here.
For anyone who had that feeling, or can imagine remembering that feeling, that panic when you think something is wrong with you followed by the swift relief remembering it isn't, The Radium Girls will be a tough read.
In fact, it is flat out impossible to read The Radium Girls without crying.
The Radium Girls is a book about science, medicine, and women: the invisible workforce behind the war effort during World War One. How their jobs destroyed them, and how badly their employers tried to wriggle out of taking the blame.
It's not an unfamiliar story. Corporate responsibility is a hot-button issue — recently, Dewayne Johnson was awarded $289 million by a jury in his case against Monsanto, whose product Roundup was said to have caused his non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
But for a group of 19, 20, and 21-year-old women in the 1910s, 20s, and 30s, this kind of victory was nearly impossible to come by. Reading The Radium Girls is a lesson in both perseverance and shame.
A mosaic of quotes from family members, diary entries, and records, The Radium Girls follows the story of several young women working at two Radium dial plants — one in New Jersey, the other in Illinois. From the girls' own decaying mouths you can hear the pain, the anguish, confusion, and isolation their sickness swallowed them in.
Remember that loose tooth story? Swap out a tooth for a bit of jaw bone.
Radium was the luminescent panacea of the age — used for everything from watch faces (which the girls specialized in painting) to tonics, makeup, and medicine. The girls used fine-tipped brushes, pressed to their tongue to form a point, before dipping them in the powdered radium and painting the numbers on a watch. Lip. Dip. Paint.
"Oh, that luminosity. That glow. Katherine Drinker was stunned by it. As the women undressed in the darkroom, she witnessed the dust lingering on their breasts, their undergarments, the inside of their thighs. It scattered everywhere, as intimate as a lover's kiss, leaving its trace as it wound around the women's limbs, across their cheeks, down the backs of their necks and around their waists... Every inch of them was marked by it, its feather-light dance that touched their soft and unseen skin. It was spectacular - and tenacious, once it had infiltrated the women's clothing."
As you read The Radium Girls, it's hard not to feel outraged — not only at the suffering of the women but at the lack of care of those around them. Some doctors did their best to treat what they thought was gum disease, quickly rotting the women's faces beyond repair. Other women suffered in their legs - their hips locking, rendering them immobile. They wasted away into nothingness and everyone around them was helpless to stop it.
The companies read like the classic villain in a Disney movie — only you know it's not a figment of the imagination as you read the letters between the plant owners, corporate doctors, and lawyers. They plotted and planned against ailing women — lying to their decaying faces about their health and the safety of radium, watching as their limbs were amputated bit by bit till nothing was left and never shining a light on what was causing this deterioration. What's more, they refused to believe the women. They weren't a threat because they were, simply, wrong.
They weren’t wrong, of course, but it took years of fighting to prove, let alone to receive any kind of vindication.
This is not a story of some compassionate lawyer swooping in and saving the girls, leading them to victory. No, the women -— with their bodies falling apart as they walked, catching bits of their jaw during church, hobbling down the stairs with frozen legs, tumors burrowing through their bones — pursued litigation themselves, petitioning lawyers, doctors, and anyone who would listen.
The problem was, few did listen.
Of course, there was one lawyer who did — Len Grossman — but as far as the book is concerned, the focus of the narrative remains on the women. Some died quickly, some lingered on far longer than anticipated. Radium worked in mysterious ways, in ways the corporate world did not want to redress.
Kate Moore is not only a writer but a jigsaw puzzle master in piecing these stories together to create suspense, desolation, and awe.
Reading The Radium Girls, while harrowing, does leave you feeling emboldened by these women and their stubbornness, their determination. One of the reasons the book works so well and is so devastating is the lack of an omniscient, third-person narrator. While you may know what is going to happen to the women, you don't quite know yet, and each turn of the page brings you closer to their fate.
Because the book is put together from direct quotes from the girls themselves, and their relatives, diary entries, and court testimony, the women are the narrators. Their pain and drive is the thread which binds the book together. Grace Fryer, Edna Hussman, Katherine Schaub, Quinta McDonald, Albina Larice, and many other women, 'Cassandra-like in their prophecies', are able to tell their own stories, long after their deaths, reminding us how far we've come — how far we have yet to go.