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Old 04-11-2018, 10:06 AM   #1
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New Leaf Book Club • May 2018 Discussion • The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women by Kate Moore is the May selection for the New Leaf Book Club.



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In a new book titled The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, Kate Moore tells the story of how these dial painters took on the radium companies that made them sick—as they were dying of radium poisoning. Their lawsuits were key to reinforcing the U.S.’s nascent workplace safety standards. With their cautionary tales in mind, scientists on the Manhattan Project learned to protect themselves from radiation.
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Old 05-15-2018, 06:34 AM   #2
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What did we think of The Radium Girls?

The discussion is now open. Everyone is welcome; please join in.
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Old 05-15-2018, 07:48 AM   #3
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Although much is made of the contributions the radium girls’ suffering made to the safety of future workers and the safety of humanity in general (the banning of atmospheric testing), the most saddening thing in this book for me was the revelation that Luminous Dial was permitted to keep operating well into the 1070s - we don’t learn the lessons of the past that well.
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Old 05-15-2018, 08:51 AM   #4
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Although much is made of the contributions the radium girls’ suffering made to the safety of future workers and the safety of humanity in general (the banning of atmospheric testing), the most saddening thing in this book for me was the revelation that Luminous Dial was permitted to keep operating well into the 1070s - we don’t learn the lessons of the past that well.
That postscript was a zinger, for anyone who thinks it couldn't happen now. There were many lessons here and sadly I think they've been learned all too well.
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Old 05-15-2018, 10:00 AM   #5
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When I was in law school, a professor of mine used to have an adage - "Learning to think like a lawyer isn't all that hard. Remembering to think like a human being again is the hard part." I liked the adage so much that when I became a professor myself, I passed it on to my students. I bring this little anecdote up because this book reminded me again of that dichotomy.

Lawyer thoughts:

I was frustrated by the pacing of the book. So much of the first half of the book focused on the "meet the girls" and then the "catalog of their physical horrors" that it almost became desensitizing. I never felt like I did more than briefly glimpse the women before they were dead. I thought more time might have been spent on the women who would be the eventual plaintiffs rather than the slap-dash anecdotes about so many of them.

I was very disappointed in the lack of exploring the actual legal issues. We got very little detail about the lawsuits themselves, the actual claims, etc. We also got a very short view of what roles the Department of Labor, the FDA, and the Public Health Service played in the state of the law before and after the cases. I understand that the women's testimony was the tear-jerking part of the narrative, but as for actually proving damages, it was only a tiny piece of the proof puzzle of the case.

I was also frustrated by the oversimplification of the roles of some of the "villains" of the case. Much was made of Flinn and his efforts to undermine the women's cases as was the abandonment of Harrison Martland, the medical examiner. Flinn would go on to spend years battling the medicinal use of radiation. Martland led a crusade against the radioactive tonic industry. Both men clearly came down on the wrong side of the women's stories, but painting them as paid-off corporate lackeys was just a little irksome to me.

Human thoughts:

Just how common was it for someone to die of their job in 1922?! The fact that employers did not actually have a legal duty not to allow their workers to be harmed by their work is not all that surprising. After all, the 1920s were not all that far removed from the industrial revolution and child labor. I suppose it is the general acceptance of death generally that I was not prepared for. So many women dying young and going unnoticed for so long.

While the story is compelling, I'm still not sure how much of an impact it had. In February, the Sidney Award for journalism was presented to a reporter who did a piece on how deadly it is to be a private trash collector in New York City. The story reported that "Waste and recycling work is the fifth most fatal job in America — far more deadly than serving as a police officer or a firefighter. Loggers have the highest fatality rate, followed by fishing workers, aircraft pilots, and roofers." That got me to thinking - our industrial workers are still dying faster than people who get hazard pay to go to work. Just how much change has actually happened in labor law?

Concluding thoughts:

I will give the book a small pass for not delving into the legal issues in a more in-depth fashion as the author is a writer who advertises ghost-writing memiors as one of her specialties. She is also English, and there are enough differences between our system of law that I can forgive the glossing over.

I wished there had been more than just the epilogue for follow-up. You I would like to know more about how this company "got away with it" until the 1970s. Who were the villains of enforcement then?

I feel the book was not evenly paced and did not make the best use of its subject, but I am still glad I read it.
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Old 05-15-2018, 12:51 PM   #6
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As I (re)read The Radium Girls, I think about our theme for the month (Doomed to repeat it: History) and what springs to mind are the many lies, distortions, and misinformation promulgated by both the tobacco and oil industries.

It also makes me think about some of the Silicone Valley companies: Facebook, Google, et al, and how they are so insidiously invading and redefining privacy online.

Which brings me to thoughts about the telecomunications industry and their collusion in reaping profits at the expense of thier customer-base.

Of course, there are plenty of science-fiction authors who have thought about the many ways that corporate interests can and likely will perpetrate fraud and unecessary death once they get into space for tourism, asteroid mining or whatever.

So my thought is this: a company may start out with the very best of intentions, and may even be the greatest employer ever, taking care of their employees and doing their best to minimize bad things happening to the customers, the environment, etc. However, I think that there is a point in a company's growth where all those good intentions are left behind.

I have worked for a couple different concerns where this point has been reached: early on, the original owners were still in charge and bonus pay was great, benefits were great, company picnics held... then the boss retires, steps back, or is bought out. The bean-counters take over, and suddenly the pay raises scale back. Bonuses are skimpy. Company picnics are reduced to hamburgers and hotdogs, then cheap pizza parties, then gone altogether.

Google is famous for the "Don't Be Evil" motto in its code of conduct. Then came along Alphabet, which made its motto "Do the Right Thing". While that sounds good, one has to wonder--what is the right thing? And is this the right thing for the customer, the general public, or the shareholder? Of course, the lawyers in the audience are also asking for definitions of 'Evil' and rightly so, which only sustains my point.

Anyway, back to the book. Here is where I learned that radium mimics calcium, and has a tendency to concentrate in bone when ingested. As a junior scientist, I like and wish there more little tidbits like this, but they are definitely tangential to the story which is all about what happens when a good thing turns out to not be so much and the natural tendency of a business to prefer profit over the welfare of employees or the general public.

What continually strikes me when I read these kinds of books is the absolute backwardness of medicine of the era. I mean, I realize that this was a hundred years ago, but I kind of grew up being taught that in the twentieth century, the art of medicine was at its height, and yes, in the years since my childhood it has grown even more advanced. Yet I wonder what practices are routine today will be regarded as downright barbaric fifty or a hundred years from now.

Anyhow, I am going to skip that rabbithole, and try to concentrate on the book at hand.

I cursed out loud when I read about how the Radium Dial Company kidnapped Margaret Looney, let her die alone and then conducted an illicit autopsy in order to remove evidence. They almost got away with stealing the body away altogether, too. Would they have erased any proof of her ever working for them, I wonder, like the Reeds denied being there with Catherine and the other girls?

The scenes that will linger with me the longest (as they have lingered with me since the first time I read this book) are the glowing ones: Edna Hoffman, when walking through a dark room, saw the radiant ghost of herself in the mirror; the body of Mollie Maggia illuminating her coffin; Catherine Donohue glowing in her bed, like a (barely) living x-ray.
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Old 05-15-2018, 01:33 PM   #7
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I found this a difficult book to get through, for a couple a reasons. The subject matter was grim but also it felt overly long. (Although I discovered that it was shorter than I'd thought because although Calibre initially estimated the word-count at ~150,000 words, once you take out the index, the bibliography and the notes it's actually around 120,000. )

I'm thinking about how to separate my experience of reading the book, the importance of the underlying story and the way it was told here. I don't read a lot of non-fiction but I would happily have listened to an hour's podcast about the topic, or maybe watched a documentary movie.

I think there were structural issues because you had the New Jersey factory and the Ottawa one, each with their own list of affected people and their own trials. I think it might have been better to focus on one and summarise the other. In fact I think that if you wanted to focus in, Catherine Donaghue - who collapsed in court - was the most compelling individual. That said, the sheer list of people involved did give you a sense of scale that helped you feel the weight of the injustice. But it felt "bitty" to me. There were asides about the lives of characters that we didn't otherwise spend a lot of time on.

So I have some misgivings about the book but I think overall it does what it sets out to do reasonably well - which is to tell the story of some forgotten women and the injustice they suffered.

I'll just have to be honest and say if I'd known how dark this book was I'm not sure I'd have read it. People say life is too short to read badly written books, but what about ones that make you sad? I'm not sure. In theory I want to read about difficult but important topics, in practice I don't choose to do so often.
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Old 05-15-2018, 07:44 PM   #8
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This is an extremely difficult book for me to read. I've had to pace myself, and I haven't finished it yet. But the horror of what these women went through makes silly things like Psycho almost seem like a romance. The continual, excruciating pain; the uncertainty about cause;the well-meaning, but pathetic attempts of doctors and dentists to help;the evil behaviour of those trying to hide the cause and prevent solutions. I have spent my life avoiding mass murderer books, and books including torture. This was far worse.
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Old 05-15-2018, 08:45 PM   #9
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Yes CRussel, far worse because it is true, and also because that "profit at any cost" mentality is still alive and well, as Dngrsone said above.

I certainly agree that there were flaws in the book. The worst for me was the frequent touches of fiction that Kate Moore inserted, presumably to make the book more palatable to people who don't usually read much non-fiction. Here is just one example:

Quote:
Roeder sighed and turned back to his desk to read his correspondence, smoothing down his dark hair - flattened, as it always was, with pomade - and self-consciously adjusting his elegant bow-tie. Yet his heart sank further when he saw what was before him ...
That embellishing detracts from the story she has to tell, because it is so unnecessary. Looking at the notes at the end certainly suggests that Moore wasn't making up anything else, but it unfortunately does raise the question of whether anything else was the work of her imagination rather than verifiable fact.

latepaul, I think it was sadly necessary to deal with both Newark and Ottawa in detail, to underline the way in which the second example mirrored the first so exactly, both in the sufferings of the women and the callousness of the management in each case. "Doomed to repeat it" indeed.

I have more to say on the book and the thoughts it raised, but will leave that for later discussion.
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Old 05-15-2018, 08:49 PM   #10
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PS I forgot to mention how interesting I found the post by astrangerhere, looking at the story from both the lawyer's point of view and that of common humanity. Thanks for the links you gave us also.
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Old 05-15-2018, 09:40 PM   #11
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I appreciated astrangerhere's post as well. Thank you! It was an insightful perspective; I hadn't thought critically about the legal aspects. It's interesting how we bring our unique backgrounds/interests/experiences to readings and discussions. Like Dngrsone, I would have liked to have known more about the science. I was very interested in the long-term effects on the communities. NPR Illinois did a nice two-part series on the Radium Girls. The first part summarizes what you learn in the book, although it has some nice pictures. It is tradition to wrap a red homemade scarf around the memorial statue at Christmas. The second part covers Ottawa's clean-up efforts of the contamination which has continued into the 2000s.
http://nprillinois.org/post/radium-g...agedy#stream/0
http://nprillinois.org/post/radium-g...-contamination

There is a website for the book. It includes a page which compiles short bios of the girls, and it is quite impactful to see their names and pictures grouped together. Also interesting is the FAQ page. "Does this story have any relevance today?" includes links to similar issues which were quite eye-opening to me.
http://www.theradiumgirls.com/the-girls/4593781028
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Old 05-16-2018, 12:16 AM   #12
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Great research as usual, Bookworm_Girl - thank you! I shall read these items with interest.
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Old 05-16-2018, 12:57 AM   #13
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Excellent posts all! I don't know that we'll end up with as many posts in this discussion as some others, but the quality so far has been excellent. I very much appreciate them. And I'm still struggling with a love/hate relationship with this book, for the reasons described above.
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Old 05-16-2018, 07:40 AM   #14
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Thanks all for all the kind comments.

I was talking about this with my wife this morning and was reminded of another example.

I saw the feature film Spotlight in 2015 when it was released. This was a film rendition of the reportage that the Boston Globe's Spotlight team did that broke open the stories of child abuse in the Catholic church.

The film focused on a small handful of the thousands of victims. But at the end of the film, before the credits, a list ran on the screen of all Catholic dioceses and schools that had reported child molesters on their staff. The list ran for almost a full minute. And sucked absolutely every bit of air out of the room. I attended parochial school all my life, so this was always going to be a more personal topic for me, but my wife did not, and it affected her the same way.

As soon as I'd seen the film, I went out and got the book version of the reportage and it handled the issue in much the same way. Maybe it was because of that experience that I was a little numbed by the way Moore handled the victims in Radium.

I also really appreciated Bookpossum's comment:
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That embellishing detracts from the story she has to tell, because it is so unnecessary. Looking at the notes at the end certainly suggests that Moore wasn't making up anything else, but it unfortunately does raise the question of whether anything else was the work of her imagination rather than verifiable fact.
This sort of fluffing does more harm than good as it makes real people into characters (or charicatures in some cases). I think that contributed to the villany of certain characters and the sainthood of others.

(At the end of the conversation, my wife - who is the human half of this house - reminded me that she was sure the method affects all people differently )
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Old 05-16-2018, 12:15 PM   #15
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[...]That embellishing detracts from the story she has to tell, because it is so unnecessary. Looking at the notes at the end certainly suggests that Moore wasn't making up anything else, but it unfortunately does raise the question of whether anything else was the work of her imagination rather than verifiable fact. [...]
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[...] This sort of fluffing does more harm than good as it makes real people into characters (or charicatures in some cases). I think that contributed to the villany of certain characters and the sainthood of others.

(At the end of the conversation, my wife - who is the human half of this house - reminded me that she was sure the method affects all people differently )
I'm only 50 pages in and I, too, have found the embellishments quote annoying ... and condescending. All these bright, cheerful, attractive girls; what, they didn't employ any dull, boring, ugly girls? Or, as I guess is the case, is the assumption that the reader will have maximum sympathy if the victims are all made as likeable as possible? ... I like my non-fiction to be less transparently manipulative.

But I am interested and will keep reading as much as time permits.
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New Leaf Book Club • Vote for May 2018 • Doomed to Repeat It: History issybird Book Clubs 25 05-14-2018 01:31 AM
New Leaf Book Club • April 2018 Discussion • Making History by Stephen Fry issybird Book Clubs 69 04-21-2018 03:48 AM
New Leaf Book Club • Nominations for May 2018 • Doomed to Repeat It: History issybird Book Clubs 101 04-10-2018 04:24 AM
New Leaf Book Club • March 2018 Discussion • The Old Man & the Sea, Ernest Hemingway issybird Book Clubs 106 04-01-2018 07:01 AM
New Leaf Book Club • February 2018 Discussion • Passing by Nella Larsen issybird Book Clubs 161 03-27-2018 07:32 AM


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