‘Radium Halos’ Dramatizes Grisly Chapter of U.S. Labor History

Lindsay Beyerstein

Shel­ley Stouts Radi­um Halos (Lib­ri­files Pub­lish­ing, 2009) is a his­tor­i­cal nov­el about the human cost of one of the most infa­mous indus­tri­al poi­son­ings in U.S. history.

As I wrote last week, the real Radi­um Girls were young women hired by the U.S. Radi­um Cor­po­ra­tion to paint glow-in-the dark watch dials at fac­to­ries in Illi­nois, Con­necti­cut, and New Jer­sey in the 1920s.

The paint got its eerie green glow from radi­um, a radioac­tive element.The girls were instruct­ed to tip” their brush­es with their lips. After a few years of swal­low­ing paint, the real-life dial painters start­ed los­ing their teeth, and even­tu­al­ly their jaws as the radi­um smol­dered in their bones. The sto­ry of their poi­son­ing and the sub­se­quent coverup by U.S. Radi­um became a cat­a­lyst for major occu­pa­tion­al health and safe­ty reforms.

The nar­ra­tor of Radi­um Halos is 65-year-old Helen Water­man, a for­mer dial painter who has spent the last 30 years in a state men­tal hos­pi­tal. Most of the action takes place in the ear­ly 1970s, with fre­quent flash­backs to the 20s and 30s.

We learn that Helen was insti­tu­tion­al­ized after suf­fer­ing a break­down dur­ing which she tried to carve invis­i­ble tumors out of her flesh. She has good rea­son to fear can­cer. She and her sis­ter Vio­let left North Car­oli­na in the sum­mer of 1923 to work at the Radi­um Dial fac­to­ry in Ottawa, Ill.

The prob­lem is, Helen nev­er admits what she did that sum­mer, not even after her sis­ter dies of radi­um poi­son­ing in 1934. So, she watch­es her friends die and won­ders if she’ll be next.

You might won­der why Helen is afraid to come for­ward. The nov­el nev­er real­ly makes her ret­i­cence plausible.

Ini­tial­ly the girls can’t say where they were because they told their father they were going to work in a music store. They knew he wouldn’t want them work­ing in a fac­to­ry because their moth­er com­mit­ted sui­cideaf­ter she was raped while work­ing in a factory.

It’s that kind of nov­el. The plot hinges on sev­er­al trag­ic and untime­ly deaths includ­ing a decap­i­ta­tion, an immo­la­tion, a childbed death, and a heart attack. That’s not even count­ing the ago­niz­ing deaths of the radi­um girls.

But even after her father dies, Helen can’t unbur­den her­self. That’s because some­thing else real­ly bad hap­pened that sum­mer, and Helen and her friends swore each oth­er to secrecy.

Helen’s past is exposed when the Argonne Nation­al Lab­o­ra­to­ry tries to track down long-dead Vio­let to test her for radi­um expo­sure. Final­ly, Helen has to decide whether to get tested.

Radi­um Halos would be a good selec­tion for a young adult book group. It has plen­ty of dra­ma and calls atten­tion to an impor­tant chap­ter in U.S. labor his­to­ry. But don’t pick up this book for the labor his­to­ry or polit­i­cal com­men­tary. Radi­um Halos is pri­mar­i­ly a multi­gen­er­a­tional melo­dra­ma about the cor­ro­sive pow­er of secrets.

Lind­say Bey­er­stein is an award-win­ning inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Not­ed. Her sto­ries have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Mag­a­zine, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. Her pho­tographs have been pub­lished in the Wall Street Jour­nal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hill­man Blog (http://​www​.hill​man​foun​da​tion​.org/​h​i​l​l​m​a​nblog), a pub­li­ca­tion of the Sid­ney Hill­man Foun­da­tion, a non-prof­it that hon­ors jour­nal­ism in the pub­lic interest.
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