“… You should own your creativity. You should own your art, and call yourself an artist, or writer, if that’s what you are. And so I hope that people read this book [and], if they are creative people, they take away this lesson from the story.”
Those are the words of author Whitney Scharer on Lee Miller, the protagonist in Scharer’s debut and much-buzzed-about novel, The Age of Light.
Literary New England’s Cindy Wolfe Boynton interviewed Scharer yesterday, just hours before she flew from her Massachusetts home to the United Kingdom for several book events. Scharer will be back in the U.S. by early March for a cross-country book tour, including several stops in New England.
Moore, also an actress, said she was inspired to write The Radium Girls while directing two London performances of “These Shining Lives,” which I saw earlier this month at the Milford Arts Council in Connecticut.
Written by award-winning American television writer and playwright Melanie Marnich, “These Shining Lives” tells the true story of four of Ottawa, Illinois, women who suffered the painful and deadly effects of radium exposure while painting glow-in-the-dark numbers on watches and clocks in the early 1900s. It’s narrated by a young woman named Catherine Donohue, who like all the female workers painting dials at clock factories in Illinois, New Jersey and Connecticut was told to use her lips to create a fine point at the end of her brush before dipping it in to the luminous green paint.
From roughly 1917 to 1940, this was the song of sometimes thousands of nicknamed “radium girls”—most of them in their 20s—who lipped and dipped each time they painted a number, 1 through 12, on up to 150 watch faces a day. The women became irradiated from within, leading to broken bones, grapefruit-sized tumors, their teeth falling out, jaws breaking, immovable arms and legs, and spines collapsing. Many reported rolling over at night, catching a glimpse of themselves in their bedroom mirrors, and seeing—with horror—that their bodies glowed in the dark.
Even though the men who ran the factories knew that radium was dangerous, the women were told the paint was safe. Many complained of its gritty taste and worried about what they might be ingesting. But as one of the women matter-of-factly states in “These Shining Lives”: “You get used to it.”
Lyrically written, “Shining Lives” uses the stories of Catherine and co-workers Francis O’Connell, Charlotte Purcell and Pearl Payne to show not just the excruciating pain and disfigurement that countless radium girls like them suffered, but also the endless courage, tenacity and resilience they displayed as they fought for recompense, justice, and the establishment of new protections for future dial workers.
At the performance I attended, audience members laughed, disbelieving, when the company doctor blamed stress for the cause of Catherine’s lost teeth and debilitating leg pain. They then gasped when she was fired for becoming too sick to work.
The play skillfully uses both humor and horror to connect with its audience. But as powerful as it is, there are limits to the depth of story that a stage can tell.
From page 1 of The Radium Girls, Moore uses unapologetic, no-nonsense and often gruesome prose to vividly show the extent that working with radium, and being lied to about its dangers, affected not just the women, but their families, the baffled doctors who did their best to care for them, and the legal experts who fought for the justice they deserved.
Moore does nothing to whitewash what Catherine and the other girls experienced:
Her mouth, empty of teeth, empty of jawbone, empty of words, filled with blood, instead, until it spilled over her lips and down her stricken, shaken face. … [It was] a “painful and terrible death.” She was just twenty-four years old. (Ebook page 69)
… New bruises bloomed on her body, blood vessels bursting under her skin. Her mouth would not stop bleeding; pus oozed from her gums. Her bad leg was a constant source of pain. She couldn’t take it anymore; she became “delirious” and lost her mind. (Ebook page 195)
She suffered excruciating, constant pain that required continuous administration of narcotics. Her jawbone continued to fracture into ever-smaller fragments, each new break more painful than the last, and with the new breaks came a new development. Catherine started hemorrhaging from her jaw. She lost approximately one pint of blood each time. (Ebook page 521)
Part of my wanting to read Moore’s book, and see Marnich’s play, was to learn about the radium girls who worked in New England at the Waterbury Clock Factory. I had heard a little about Frances Splettstocher, the first Connecticut woman to die from working there with radium. She was followed by Mildred Cardow and Mary Damulis. All were in their early 20s.
Between 1926 and 1936, the Waterbury Clock Company issued more than $90,000 in medical settlements to radium girls. Yet Waterbury was barely mentioned by Marnich, and only tangentially referred to by Moore. A little research led me to a 2002 Waterbury Observer article that perhaps explains why. While the New Jersey and Illinois dial painters received extensive media coverage—the impact of which Moore deftly shows—no news articles were ever written about the Waterbury women. Their cases were all settled privately, out of court, with no reports made to state or federal agencies.
Unlike the radium girls in Illinois and New Jersey, the Waterbury dial painters had no champions.
“No one in Connecticut with power was willing to help those women,” said Claudia Clark, author of Radium Girls: Women and Industrial Health Reform, 1910-1935, in the Observer article. “The state was so ant-labor and pro-business. Even the women’s organizations wouldn’t help. It would have been great if someone with power and authority got involved, but it didn’t happen.”
As Moore explains, the radium girls’ cases that went public played a significant role in the establishment of new, strict federal occupational health and safety guidelines for those working with radium and other hazardous materials. They also led to Congress passing a law to give workers the right to receive compensation for occupational illnesses.
Yet the blatant lies these women were told; the bosses who stayed silent despite what they knew—unacceptable. Shameful. And in many ways, as viscerally painful as what these women went through. I’m nauseous as I think about it and type these words.
Moore’s The Radium Girls is a must-read not just for those interested in history, but for those who believe in equal rights and justice. Yes, this past century has seen advancements in gender, workplace, healthcare and economic rights. But so many more are needed. There are also too many similarities between the battles Catherine Donohue and other radium girls fought with those still going on today.
Published last year, Good and Mad examines the contemporary and historical impact of women’s anger on American society. According to the book description, Traister shows that while women’s fury over injustices has long been repressed and dismissed, it has also been one of the most powerful forces in U.S. politics and culture.
As an often-angry feminist who has been told that I’m crazy, irrational, and wasting my time, I can’t wait to crack the cover.
I DON’T USUALLY WRITE ABOUT BOOKS UNTIL I’ve finished reading them. But I’m too excited. A few days ago, I discovered that my current literary BFF Diana Bishop is right now in New Haven, Connecticut, just 15 minutes from my house.
I’m half-way through The Book of Life, the third and final installment of Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy. And I’m loving it. The writing is crisp; the story engaging; and Diana is a compelling, likeable, and authentic protagonist—intelligent, stubborn, determined, vulnerable.
Yet while I’ve known from the start of the series that Diana, a witch, is also a history professor at New Haven’s Yale University, there was never any hint she or the story would go there.
The first two books in the series, A Discover of Witchesand Shadow of Night, take the reader to London, France, Venice, and Prague of today and 1591 as Diana and her vampire husband Matthew search for the missing pages of an ancient and mystical manuscript. The book is known both as Ashmole 782 and the Book of Life, and it’s believed to hold the key to the origins of vampires, witches, and daemons—knowledge that some vampires and witches are willing to kill for.
The Book of Life starts with Diana, Matthew and their extended witch-vampire families at Matthew’s towered, 11th century castle Sept-Tours in France. Hunted by the Congregation of vampires, witches, and daemons that believes bloodlines must remain pure, and has outlawed supernatural beings from cross-breeding, a pregnant Diana and Matthew escape to the haunted, upstate New York house Diana grew up in. Aided by Matthew, her witch Aunt Sarah, her vampire nephew Gallowglass, and other family and friends, Diana works to hone her emerging magical powers. Talk of travel revolves around Diana and Matthew going back to England for the birth of their twins. But then Diana’s best friend, scientist and fellow Yale professor Chris Roberts arrives.
I won’t spoil how or why Diana and Matthew decided to go to New Haven. Unlike the first two books in the series, which were slower paced and sprawling, Life is as action-packed and urgent as the tasks Diana and Matthew must complete before death, or any other form of irreparable tragedy, strikes them or someone they love.
When we first see Diana in New Haven at the start of Chapter 15, she is sitting at a table at the New Haven Lawn Club:
The hushed confines of the main building dampened the distinctive plonk of tennis balls and the screaming children enjoying the pool during the last week of summer vacation. … “Here you are, Professor.” My attentive waiter was back, accompanied by the fresh scent of mint leaves. “Peppermint tea.” (Chapter 15)
Sitting in the New Haven Lawn Club myself, eating lunch at a table probably not too far from where Diana sat, I’ve heard the same thump of tennis balls, and splash of arms, that can float in to the club dining room. Continuing to read Life over the past few nights, I’ve also discovered more ways that my and Diana’s New Haven have overlapped.
Like her, I’ve researched rare books at the Beinecke Library, marveled at the “glass-encased books [that forms] the Beinecke’s spinal column,” eaten at Wall Street Pizza, and driven to nearby Sleeping Giant State Park (though admittedly not with a vampire husband) to look at the stars at night:
Matthew scanned the horizon, unable to stop searching for new threats. Then his attention turned skyward.
“The moon is bright tonight,” he mused. “Even here it’s hard to see the stars.”
“That’s because it’s Mabon,” Diana said quietly.
“Mabon?” Matthew looked startled.
She nodded. “One year ago you walked into the Bodleian Library and straight into my heart. As soon as that wicked mouth of yours smiled, the moment your eyes lightened with recognition even though we’d never met before, I knew that my life would never be the same.” (Chapter 22)
Reading Life, I know exactly where the Yale Center for Genome Analysis they work in is located; am sure I’ve walked past the tall, “red door with the white trim and the black pediment” that opens into Diana’s Court Street apartment; and have parked my car near Gallowglass’s condo inside a converted Catholic church on Green Street.
What distinguished the vampire’s house was that the drapes were tightly closed and only cracks of golden light around the edges of the windows betrayed the fact that someone was still awake. (Chapter 20)
I realize that Diana is a fictional character and only literarily, rather than literally, in New Haven.
But when you’re a bibliomaniac like me, an emotional connection to a literary character can feel as real as one to a real person. I’m one of those people who likes to take literary pilgrimages to places described in a book; to places where I can breathe the same air as the character or author I’ve fallen in love with; to places that inspired favorite writers, so that I can feel that inspiration, too. It makes the reading experience richer. And it makes me feel that much more connected to my understanding of the world and myself.
Doing a quick Google search before writing this post, I found a terrific website called The Tenth Knot, which features articles by Deborah Harkness superfans who have followed Diana’s and Matthew’s footsteps around the world. Among them are two posts that provide addresses, book quotes and other details about all the New Haven cites included in The Book of Life. They’re listed as New Haven, Part 1 and New Haven, Part 2. And for anyone looking to take an All Souls New England pilgrimage, they provide all the information you’ll need.
Deborah joked that while she created Diana to be descended from accused Salem witch Bridget Bishop, she herself has no such lineage: “I would be proud and delighted to have [a witch as an ancestor], but I have not found one yet.”
She also talked about how “wonderful and strange” it is that Diana and other characters she “fully created” from her imagination have become so vividly real to people like me: “That I could create something that people could embrace so fully. …. That’s a rare and precious thing,” Deborah said. “I feel so privileged to have met so many amazing people who feel this way, and to have been able to experience it.”
Like all the books I read, I’ll rate The Book of Life on Goodreads once I’ve finished it. In the meantime, if you’re a history-romance-fantasy fan, don’t hesitate to add the All Souls Trilogy to your #TBR list. And if you decided to take an All Souls literary trip to New Haven or other location, definitely let me know!
IT ALMOST FELT LIKE A FAMILY MEMBER DIED when, in August 2015, I realized I needed the time I was using to produce the Literary New England Radio Show to care for my elderly parents instead.
Reaching as many as 10,000 fellow bibliomaniacs an episode, I hosted the show for four fantastic years, interviewing best-selling authors as diverse and talented as Margaret Atwood, Nathaniel Philbrick, Geraldine Brooks, Alice Hoffman, Jodi Picoult, Chris Bohjalian, and Deborah Harkness. And when it was gone, I mourned.
But I am thrilled to announce that today, with this post, Literary New England is back!
While the original Literary New England was primarily a weekly podcast, the new Literary New England will take several forms. Rather than try to cram our celebration of New England-connected books and authors into one, weekly, hour-long podcast, we’ll deliver our coverage in more bit-sized servings, and dish it out several times a week.
Because Badass Bookish Women (to be known here as BBWs) don’t always get the ink and recognition they deserve, we’ll be paying extra attention to showcasing empowering and inspirational literary females from the past and present. A truth: The #FutureIsFemale. And while we love men, we believe it’s women who will ultimately change the world.
Our nation started here. Stories have been lived and told here not just since the Mayflower landed in 1620, but for centuries before. There is a palpable sense of belonging here that I believe draws and inspires people. It certainly inspires me. And that sense of place, history, and life—lived in every imaginable circumstance and time—is a powerful thing.
Since book love is meant to be shared, please follow Literary New England on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. And help us spread the word about the start of our exciting new chapter!
An historical novel about a Jewish nurse who plots revenge when one of her patients is the doctor who subjected her to damaging medical experiments in a New York City Jewish orphanage decades before, the book has a risky structure for a debut novelist. Chapters that take place in the present are written in the first person, while chapters in the past are written in the third. This change in voice is startling at first. But van Alkemade is a talented writer who, through rich prose and detail, makes you forget anything but the story as she skillfully brings protagonist Rachel Rabinowitz’s pain, vulnerability, struggle and desire for justice to vivid life.
The X-ray treatments Rachel undergoes as part of what her Jewish orphanage doctor believes will be groundbreaking medical research are part of what Kim and I will talk about on the show. Click here for a short teaser and, if you like what you hear, be sure to tune in at 8 p.m. Monday night! In addition to the author interviews, we’ll be giving away copies of each of these books.
But don’t wait to see whether you win a copy of Orphan Number Eight to add it to your to-read list. In it, you’ll travel with Rachel from the cramped tenement apartments of turn-of-the-century Manhattan, to orphanage cribs where children go weeks without ever being touched, to an off-the-map town in Colorado, to the impossibly soft sand and blue sky of Coney Island. It’s a terrific and affecting ride.
Attention Hollywood: Orphan Number Eight should be a movie!
“The State of Connecticut has been and continues to be home to countless talented local authors, from world renowned literary figures including Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe, to authors that are lesser known but equally deserving of recognition …”
That’s an excerpt from the proclamation Gov. Dannel Malloy issued to named today “Connecticut Authors’ Day” in the Nutmeg State.
Celebrations included an invitation-only reception at the Mark Twain House in Hartford featuring best-selling Connecticut authors June Hyjek (also president of the Association of Publishers for Special Sales, Connecticut chapter) and Kara Sundlun (also an Emmy Award-winning journalist), shown at right, and several state officials. More than 60 people attended.
“When you look at the names of those who have lived and created here, from Mark Twain to Dominick Dunne, you see the shaping of America’s culture,” Hyjek said. “While the bold-faced names get most of the attention, this day intends to celebrate all authors who choose to call Connecticut home. Books combat illiteracy. Even if a book doesn’t become a bestseller, it doesn’t mean that it hasn’t added value to someone’s life. Every book is important; every author is important.”
Among the authors with Connecticut connections noted at today’s reception were Pulitzer Prize-winners including A. Scott Berg (Lindbergh), Annie Proulx (The Shipping News) and Bill Dedman (The Color of Money), along with best-sellers Stephanie Meyer (Twilight), Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love), Jay McInerney (Bright Lights, Big City) and Candace Bushnell (Sex and The City).
How are each of these authors linked to Connecticut?
Scott Berg was born in Norwalk
Annie Proulx was born in Norwich
Bill Dedman lives in Fairfield County
Stephanie Meyer and Jay McInerney were born in Hartford
Elizabeth Gilbert was born in Waterbury and grew up on a small family Christmas tree farm in Litchfield
Candace Bushnell was born and raised in Glastonbury
Sorry Susannah Cahalan, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Philippa Gregory and Katherine Howe for taking the easy way out and posting this pic, rather than writing proper reviews. Will make it up to each of you lovely ladies, but in the meantime … Thanks for the great reads! Last month, when life was less hectic, I wrote about Jennifer Tseng’s Mayumi at length.