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Friday 22 September 2023

My Coffee and Thorn Guest: Luminous by Samantha Wilcoxson

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About the Book
In 1922 the dials of luminous watches were painted with radium paint by girls in American factories who were told that radium was harmless, who were taught to bring their paint brushes to a sharp tip by putting them between their lips, who were sacked when they got ill.  Many of them later died of radium poisoning. The bosses of the factory knew what was happening. They hid it from the girls.

This is the story of one such girl – a girl who refused to die until the bosses were brought to court. 

Catherine’s life is set on an unexpected course when she accepts a job at Radium Dial. She soon finds out that the excellent pay is no recompense for the evil secret that lurks in the magical glow-in-the-dark paint. Catherine Donohoe takes on the might of a big corporation and becomes an early pioneer of social justice in the era between world wars.
Emotive and inspiring – this book will touch you like no other as you witness the devastating impact of radium poisoning on young women’s lives.

Amazon link: 
Goodreads link: 
Genre:  Fictional account of real events, 1920s and 30s.
Print length: 321 pages (83K words)
Age range: This is an adult book, but may be suitable for mature older teenagers
Trigger warnings: Distressing medical content
Amazon Rating: 4.5*

Samantha makes you feel so many different emotions. The strongest for me was anger at the Radium Dial Corporation for subjecting these girls to this poison, while they knew it was making them very ill. The next strongest emotion was extreme sadness for what these girls went through. This book takes you on a heartbreaking journey through Catherine Donohoe’s life. Amazon review
Samantha Wilcoxson’s novel Luminous is more than just an emotional rollercoaster ride. It is a tearjerker, that tells a tale of a fate so devastating that simply turning the pages will hurt. And it is based on a true story.
A history, that should not be forgotten. A history, that may repeat itself if we’re not careful. Amazon Review
Luminous is a gripping fictional account of Catherine Donohue’s life, told with such passion, honesty and empathy, it stays with you for a long time. And perhaps that’s a good thing. It makes us listen up.
I can’t recommend this novel highly enough. A must-read, it is my Book of the Year. Amazon review

Samantha Wilcoxson is an author of emotive biographical fiction and strives to help readers connect with history’s unsung heroes. She also writes nonfiction for Pen & Sword History. Samantha loves sharing trips to historic places with her family and spending time by the lake with a glass of wine. Her most recent work is Women of the American Revolution, which explores the lives of 18th century women, and she is currently working on a biography of James Alexander Hamilton.

An (honest) review

originally reviewed for Discovering Diamonds

I had not heard of this story until this novel came to my attention. After I'd finished reading it, I looked up Catherine Donohue and the other 'radium girls' and the fact that one is able to see astonishing and deeply upsetting images really brings it home that this is a true story. I can imagine the author of the novel wondering why it hadn't been told in fiction form before now, when it is a story crying out to be told, and Ms Wilcoxson is to be commended for correcting that omission. 

It must have been a difficult problem though: just how to fictionalise it? And where this book succeeds is in conveying the bitter contrast between the normal life Catherine had and the living hell that it became. When I read it, I had no idea of the outcome and because of that, whilst there is a sense of foreboding (we all know not to put radium in our mouths so reading those early sections one felt like shouting out the danger), the depth of the damage done was shocking. All the way through the later chapters I had a sense of anger and sadness at the life lost, the life Catherine could have, should have, had. 

The early chapters show vividly the kind of life lived by young people in the prohibition era and I especially loved the little scene outside the pharmacy in which one of Catherine's friends managed to procure a little illicit alcohol. The sense of carefree lives, full of hope and expectation, and of shy romantic encounters were all beautifully done, which only added to the poignancy of the later chapters.

The physical deterioration is portrayed unflinchingly but, as it comes from Catherine's point of view it is not a grim spectacle, because we are not merely gawping, we are discovering what it must have felt like to suffer these horrific symptoms. Catherine has to remind herself, and the reader, that she was still a very young woman.

It is clear that the author has researched every tiny detail of this tragic episode of history, not only with the court papers but even detailing the occasion when the court hearing had to move location to accommodate the physical limitations of the victim. 

The use of quotations, either from the victims, the deniers, or the court judgements, at the beginning of each chapter was a good device, serving as a potent reminder that this was real, that it happened, and what a scandal it was. 

The entire novel is told from Catherine's point of view and I might have preferred to read parts of it from someone else's, and would have welcomed a little more characterisation of the other girls, to get a better sense of their different personalities as well as the challenges they faced. It's clear that there was a lot of local opposition initially to the legal action from those whose incomes depended on the radium company and perhaps a little more detail of that might have added another layer to the story.

Overall though, a brave and accomplished piece of fiction. I can't say it's an enjoyable read, because of the subject matter, but it is a book that should be read and one which achieves its aim of deeply humanising the story.
A Discovering Diamonds Reviewer

My personal review:

I read Luminous when it was originally submitted to Discovering Diamonds, and was interested to read it again, these few years later,  for Coffee and Thorn. It is an emotional - and an appalling read, appalling in the context of the subject, that is!

That this actually happened to the Radium Girls is horrifying, but munitions girls, miners, and so many others in a similar line of work where the dangers were ignored, for women and men, were equally as dreadful. And I assume, in many cases in many countries, still are.

That Catherine Donohue was a real person who endured the consequences of her job, her livelihood, and her strength and determination to expose the truth is even more poignant. 

Samantha Wilcoxson's research is excellent, her storytelling equally as good. She brings the utter horror of the suffering and endurance of Catherine and her co-workers to very vivid life. This is not an easy read because of the  emotions it stirs - compassion for the girls as their health declined, resentment, even hatred, for those who were equally as determined to keep this enormous outrage quiet.

Being non-religious I did find some of the passages which dwelt on Catherine's need for prayer and spiritual support to be a little slow, but on the other hand the tale is set in the 1920s when Faith and God played a very important role in the majority of people in Christian-based societies through their daily lives. It would have been odd not to have included this side of Catherine's life and suffering.

I agree with the #DDRevs reviewer that I would have liked more from some of the other characters, but there is only so much an author can - and should - do, and Luminous is quite adequately powerful and thought-provoking as it is.
I recommend that you read it.

Helen Hollick
* * * * 4 stars


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