September has been all about nonfiction, for whatever reason. Does anyone else find that their reading tends to group together like that?
This first nonfiction on my list is The Radium Girls, by Kate Moore. I think a Buzzfeed article is what first tipped me off about this book’s existence. It’s about a group of women in the early 1900s, who worked for companies that used radium to paint watch dials. When radium was first discovered, doctors and scientists lauded it as a miracle cure. Radium was in lotions, drinks, hand creams. Everyone wanted radium. So, when the girls working in radium watch factories were told to use their mouths to point their paintbrushes, they didn’t think twice.
Years later, one by one, they starting exhibit horrific symptoms. It took many different doctors to figure out that it was the radium that was poisoning them. What follows is a legal battle with their former employers as they try to repay their thousands of dollars of medical debt and compensate their families for their impending losses. It was fascinating to learn the early mindset about radium and how these women changed laws to see justice served to those who put them in harm’s way. It is not an easy read. I found myself putting it down multiple times after descriptions of the women’s illnesses. I am a WebMD junkie, and I could feel my joints aching as I read. The descriptions and pictures are not for the faint of heart.
Similarly difficult to read was Tara Westover’s memoir, Educated. Westover grew up in rural Idaho, raised by parents obsessed with preparing for the end of the world. She was never sent to school, never taken to a doctor. She didn’t receive a birth certificate until she was nine years old. It’s hard to read about the toxic, sexist environment in which women are only expected to marry and have children. Westover suffered physical and verbal abuse at the hands of one of her brothers and her parents repeatedly did nothing to stop it, even attempting to gaslight her, pretending that she made everything up.
Despite these conditions, Westover ends up at Brigham Young University, then Cambridge, eventually earning a Ph.D. Her life is equally horrifying and fascinating and I finished the memoir in two days.