Saturday, August 7, 2010

Review: Radium Halos by Shelley Stout


"A whole person's life is something like a war. After you fight in a war, you can't help but be different in some way, but folks change just from living through hardships and sorrows and angers too. Also, like a war, nobody really wins, but life goes on anyway."
---Radium Halos by Shelley Stout

Welcome to my first Smashwords book of the week. Radium Halos by Shelley Stout is a historical fiction novel based on the true story of the Radium Girls---factory workers from the 1920s who were hired to paint the dials of clocks and watches with luminous radium paint to make them glow in the dark. The girls were coached to lick the brushes in order to get a finer point, and many became ill from the radium paint they ingested.

The narrator of this fictional novel is Helen, a sweet but slow woman who worked in the factory as a teenager with a friend and with her sister Violet. A terrible accident occurred during that fateful summer which swore the girls into a pact of silence about even the fact that they were there, a pact which persisted through the deaths of both Violet and her friend Clara over the intervening years. The now-widowed and childless Helen is 65 and lives a rootless life, moving back and forth between a mental hospital and the home of her sour niece Pearl, who has learned about the radium dial factory and is trying to uncover the 'truth' about her mother's death.

The novel is polished and well-written, and full of interesting characters. Pearl manages to be both disagreeable and ultimately sympathetic; Helen wavers between sweetly naive and trenchantly observant. Adrienne, on-again-off-again sweetheart to Pearl's disagreeable son Tony, offers a whiff of girl power to the struggling Helen at an opportune time. The feeble Benjamin, son to Clara, shows different sides of himself to all three of the central women. And driving the narrative are Helen's memories of that summer at the factory. Minor characters such as Pearl's fiance and son, are less developed; I think Stout does better with the women.

Helen narrates in a sort of simple person's dialect that might be wearying for those who don't enjoy such things, but the voice is consistently maintained and definitely not gratuitous. The author appears to have done her research on the historical details and thankfully glosses over aspects of the story that would have bogged the narrative down (for example, the court cases the women fought to get their medical treatment paid for is mentioned but not covered in great detail). I felt that the real star of the story was Helen though. She as a character will stick with me more than the over-riding story of the Radium Girls.

High marks for a Smashwords novel! I definitely recommend this one, without hesitation. A great start to my year of Smashwords reading!

3 comments:

graywave said...

Nice review. Reviewing Smashwords books is a great idea. It's a great company, doing great things but it needs people like you out there to help guide readers through all those thousands of books.

Smashwords authors should, of course, support you in this by offering you free review copies of their books.

Nick Spalding said...

I agree.

I'd be happy to email you a free copy of Life...With No Breaks, ficbot.

Also, I've added your blog to Spalding's Racket :)

SapphireSavvy said...

Great review. I, too, read and loved this book, and had a similar reaction that you did: in a book that could so easily become bogged down in mega-battles and depression, it manages to touch on real humanity and deeper issues without ever losing its sense of fun, of dealing with life as it comes, with being a real person. Incidentally, I did not feel that Pearl's fiance and son were important characters, therefore they weren't developed because they didn't need to be. Anyway, all in all, a fantastic book!