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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

What I’m Reading: The Radium Girls

It's still January and I am already on my way toward one of my 2017 reading goals-- Read More Nonfiction! I was aided in this endeavor by the fact that I was invited to have lunch yesterday with Kate Moore the author of the upcoming book, The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women (May 2017). Here is the publisher’s summary:
The incredible true story of the young women exposed to the “wonder” substance of radium and their brave struggle for justice... 
As World War I raged across the globe, hundreds of young women toiled away at the radium-dial factories, where they painted clock faces with a mysterious new substance called radium. Assured by their bosses that the luminous material was safe, the women themselves shone brightly in the dark, covered from head to toe with the glowing dust. With such a coveted job, these “shining girls” were considered the luckiest alive—until they began to fall mysteriously ill. As the fatal poison of the radium took hold, they found themselves embroiled in one of America’s biggest scandals and a groundbreaking battle for workers’ rights. 
A rich, historical narrative written in a sparkling voice, The Radium Girls is the first book that fully explores the strength of extraordinary women in the face of almost impossible circumstances and the astonishing legacy they left behind.

A bit more background about this book which I learned yesterday-- Moore first learned of the story of these radium girls when she wanted to direct a play about strong women. She literally Googled "plays about strong women," and a few pages into the result she found, These Shining Lives, and not only directed the play, but also fell in love with the girls from Ottawa, IL, their tragic story, and their amazing strength.

After the play, Moore, a professional freelance writer, realized that the only two books about these women were academic texts-- very well written and influential ones, but very dry. Moore wanted to tell "the compelling lives of the girls themselves” as well as the legal and scientific parts of this story.

And that is just what she did. Note, this book was published last June in the UK by S&S and received much acclaim.

Appeal: This novel is the perfect example of nonfiction that reads like fiction. It is written in a narrative style, with a gripping voice. Moore fills the book with facts and background details, but since the young women are the focus, they shine [pun intended]. Their voices and personalities and plights drive the narrative. Moore also is conscious of pacing and structures the story so that the point of view switches frequently, to increase the pacing, and purposely leaves one story thread at a climactic point so you read to get back to it. I should note that this is not confusing or distracting at all. All of the women and the scientific and legal plot lines are all equally compelling. You want to go back and forth to keep up. Separating them would have made the story too dry. It truly is a nonfiction page turner.

Another appeal here is that you get an interesting, nonfiction [TRUE] account of something that is probably new to you combined with the personal narrative of these women AND a legal thriller AND a scientific thriller all in one package. And none of those story lines is sacrificed for the others.

It is an extremely well researched book. Moore talked to the families of these women so she could capture who they were, but she also has all of the scientific and legal background in there too.  Since Moore is not a lawyer or a scientist, however, it is all easily accessible to a lay audience. I appreciated that.

The entire time I was reading this book, I was so sad for everyone involved. How could they not know that putting the radium dipped paint brushes in their mouths (to get the point finer) was a bad idea? But the way Moore recreates the story for us, without judgment of their ignorance, you are there with the girls and you can see why and how they convinced themselves it was okay.

But it was their perseverance and strength as they were sick and dying that I loved the most about this book. These women barely had the right to vote, yet they knew they had an important job to do for future women and industrial workers. Many of them, despite great pain, testified, donated their bodies for science, and fought to help others. This is an empowering read for anyone; no matter how small you think you are, you can make a difference. Particularly right now, that is a great selling point.

Since the women are older teens when the story begins, this is also a book for YA to Adult. It is for men and women, fiction and nonfiction readers. It also plays off the extremely popular historical fiction trend of stories that focus on the forgotten voices of major events-- in this case, the beginning of our country’s more strict industrial labor laws that put the worker’s health first.

Really, it is a great example of a sure bet book; there is wide appeal. Book clubs will eat this book up, and I could see it being a great One Book option, especially in Northern IL and NJ where the factories were. At the lunch, there was also a group of academic librarians who will be using it for a STEM book club.

Three Words That Describe This Book: forgotten voices of history, gripping, teen friendly

Readalikes: As a mentioned above, anyone who enjoys the current trend of historical fiction about history’s forgotten voices, especially women, would love this nonfiction title. A few suggestions in this vein are The Other Einstein, The Paris Wife and Loving Frank.

In terms of nonfiction this book is a great readalike for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, but as I told Moore myself, unlike Skloot who inserts herself into the story (a technique I hated), Moore keeps herself out of it. Moore thanked me. for noticing that. She wanted the book to be about the “Girls,” and she was able to tell their story in an intimately personal way without that "intrusive storytelling crutch" [quotes are my words not hers]. She was glad that I thought she achieved that personal feel despite keeping herself out of it.  I should note that the Skloot book was amazing in the story it told and the way Lacks changed medical history. If you were one of the thousands of people who loved that book, read this one. [And yes, it is almost 6 years later and I am still upset that Skloot ruined that book for me. Review here.]

One of my colleagues mentioned that the gripping nature of the narrative, the scientific and legal mystery unfolding, and the way it all went back and forth reminded her of Erik Larson. I completely agree.

Another book I thought of immediately as I was reading this book was also one of my all time favorite book club titles, The Girls of Atomic City.

With all of the readalikes in this section, if you follow the linked titles you will fall down a rabbit hole of many more options.

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