Sarasota's 2020 One Book Selection Covers a Dark Chapter of American History
Sarasota County's One Book One Community program is designed to encourage residents to all read the same book at the same time, so don't be surprised if you see a lot of people toting around Kate Moore's The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, the county's 2020 One Book selection.
Moore's book tells the little-known story of female workers painting radium on dials during World War I, how the work affected their health, and how realization about the dangers of radium exposure led to a fight that changed U.S. labor laws. Moore, who will travel from her home in England to Sarasota for a talk on Friday, Jan. 31, spoke with Sarasota Magazine about Radium Girls, her writing process and what she hopes readers will gain from the book.
What inspired you to write The Radium Girls?
I first discovered the story of the radium girls through directing the play These Shining Lives by Melanie Marnich, which dramatizes the experiences of the Ottawa dial-painters. Knowing the play was based on a true story, I conducted lots of background research, wanting my production to be as authentic as it could be and wanting to do justice to the women’s real experiences.
I was astonished to find that no book existed that focused on the radium girls themselves, telling the story from their perspective. By that time, the women had become precious to me and I felt they really deserved such a book, one that told their personal stories and celebrated them as individuals and not just anonymous, collective "radium girls." I decided to write the book for them, to ensure that the individual women were not forgotten.
What was your writing process when it came to collecting narratives?
I did all my research before I wrote a word of the book. That included a month-long research trip to the U.S., where I walked the same streets the women once had, and visited key locations in person. I also pored through the historical records in libraries, museums and archive collections, where I found an extraordinary wealth of first-person material from the women—letters, diaries and court testimonies.
These first-person accounts enabled me to know what the women were genuinely thinking and feeling at various points, as they themselves could tell me—in their own words. I have stitched their voices throughout the book, and I hope that to read it is to feel like you are hearing directly from the women themselves. I also conducted original interviews with the women's families, their children, sisters, nieces and nephews and grandchildren, who were incredibly generous in sharing their personal memories of the individual women I was writing about. That enabled me to bring them to life in the book.
In your research, was there one story you found particularly moving or interesting?
I never like to single out just one radium girl, as I found all their stories heartbreaking and inspiring in different ways. They all touched me personally. But I will say that, having first directed the play about her, Catherine Wolfe Donohue will always be very, very special to me, as she was the very first radium girl I got to know. Her story is exceptional. Her determination to hold the company to account, giving evidence literally on her deathbed, was phenomenal. And her love for her children and her husband was so apparent that the tragic humanity of her loss is visceral. She was amazing.
What do you hope people will take away from this book?
I hope they will come to love and respect the girls, just like I do. And I hope people are inspired by their achievements—their shining example that you can change the world for the better.
Moore will talk and sign books at 10:30 a.m. on Friday, Jan. 31 at Suncoast Technical College, 4445 Career Lane, North Port, and again at 7 p.m. at Selby Public Library, 1331 First St., Sarasota. Visit Sarasota County's website to learn more about Kate Moore and the One Book One Community program.