The Radium Girls
Narrated by Angela Brazil
Corporate greed led to mass murder before our current legal protections came into play and perhaps no group exemplifies that better than The Radium Girls from the early Twentieth Century.
In 1898, Marie Curie and her husband Pierre discovered radium. By 1901 it was known to be dangerous if not handled with extreme care, but during the early 1900s it was used in paint to make watch dials luminescent, as well as to create luminous dials for the dashboards of military machines. When the First World War came, many girls, some as young as fifteen, considered it their patriotic duty to work in factories creating these items to help the young men so valiantly fighting in Europe. The positions paid more than three times the wage of the average factory job, and the young women who worked on those production lines dressed smartly, spent their evenings at clubs and parties and were generally considered the most glamorous gals in town. The radium powder they used as paint stuck to their clothes, hair and skin, making them glow in the dark, and many wore their good dresses to work so they would “sparkle” when they went dancing later that night. Assured that radium in small quantities was beneficial to one’s health and completely safe, they saw no reason to be concerned that they literally shone.
This narrative tells us of the initial excitement of these young women as they got the jobs, as they became caught up in the fun and sophisticated lifestyles of the factories that produced the watches and military paraphernalia that used the paint, their romances and the dreams each had for their future.
Then they began to fall sick. Teeth that ached and had to be pulled, which created terrible, debilitating infections in their mouths. Bones that literally began to shrink and cause them to limp. Arms that had to be amputated because the bones were disintegrating. As more and more of these young ladies grew ill, the corporations that hired them went to greater and greater lengths to reassure the workers and the public that radium was harmless and that the problems lay with the girls themselves. They worked equally hard to bury the increasing number of scientific reports that said otherwise – and to silence the doctors and dentists who expressed concern that the “lip, dip, paint routine,” used in production meant that the girls swallowed a little of the glowing green paint during every shift.
The horrifying illnesses faced by these women launched numerous court battles and changed the course of history. Reading more like a novel than a work of historical fact, The Radium Girls takes us through the long journey of what happened and why. It’s a tale well worth reading although the adjective laden hyperbolic writing of the author can be eye-roll inducing. Phrases such as
Chicago: a land of steel and stone and glass, where a forest of skyscrapers stretched above the ant like actions of its citizens. Here there were no fields – just opportunities ripe for the plucking.
had me inappropriately chuckling on more than one occasion.
The situation wasn’t helped by narrator Angela Brazil, who took every opportunity to dramatize the text. Her boisterous, spirited recounting served to emphasize the overblown nature of some of the language and her emotional reading of a poignant and at times horrifying story sometimes distracted from the events she was so passionately telling us about.With nonfiction, the gold standard for audio narration seems to be that of a well modulated news report. This tale especially seemed to call for a more sombre recounting of events, a gravitas that emphasized everything being described really occurred and deeply affected the people involved but while she has a pleasing voice and her pronunciation and pacing are excellent, Ms. Brazil’s emotive verbalization of the subject matter lent it an uncalled for frivolity.
But while the prose could border on the silly and the narration could be a tad distracting, there is nothing light or frothy about this tale. The Radium Girls is a critical read for anyone who doesn’t understand why organizations like the EPA and OSHA exist as well as an important reminder to those of us who get fatigued over the fight to maintain them. I would, however recommend print over audio in this particular case.
Breakdown of Grade: Narration – C Content – B+
Running time: 15 hours, 52 minutes.