I’ve noticed a bit of an interesting trend for me: I’ve started getting a little more into non-fiction. Since I work with a good bit of that kind of thing professionally, I haven’t really done much for spare time reading. And yet here I am with what could be my third(ish) non-fiction review of the year. Unlike my luck with best-selling fiction (generally poor), I seem to have done better of late with the best-selling non-fiction. The Radium Girls is non-fiction, and the best kind, meaning it’s easy to read but also informative and interesting. It’s also highly timely with lawsuits going on against major pharmacology corporations concerning what may or may not have been known for years concerning the dangers of certain products.
The book chronicles the lives, mostly work but some private, of two groups of women, one in New Jersey, the other in Illinois. What they have in common is that they all worked in a factory painting watch faces with glow-in-dark-paint, the primary ingredient of which was radium. The girls were mostly in their teens and a few in their early twenties, and they hand-painted without any kind of protective precautions, and were largely instructed to sharpen/moisten the tip of their brush in their mouths. Many of the girls eventually leave to get married or pursue other careers, but nearly all of the ones followed in the story gradually become sicker and sicker, to the point where their bones literally rot.
On the other side are the corporate lackeys and owners, who are the expected brand of business evil. They lie to the women directly, they subject them to testing but lie about or misrepresent or outright refuse to provide results, they engage in legal subterfuge, and occasionally even mess with the families concerning the bodies of the recently deceased women.
About halfway through the book, lawsuits start to add up, and about ¾ of the way through one woman in particular decides to join in the legal battle. I’m not using names because there are so many, I had a hard time keeping track of who was who, and what happened to whom when. In hindsight, we now recognize that radium is highly dangerous, and so there is a lot of suspense between the back and forth between the women and the company. One part of a case even gets to the Supreme Court. After things are settled, many of the women are dead, but a few survive to talk about how things were afterwards, as do quite a few of their surviving family members and friends.
The one things I kind of wish there was in the book was more detail about the company people, although it would make sense they wouldn’t want to talk about something that now looks really bad for them, or have left easy to locate records of such things. Overall, I found this book really interesting, often tragic, and full of hope and spirit. A pretty good though not terribly light read.