Review: Luminous: The Story of a Radium Girl by Samantha Wilcoxson

I'm thrilled to share my review of Luminous: The Story of a Radium Girl by historical fiction author, Samantha Wilcoxson.

This review is long overdue, as I read the novel in the spring. Based on a true story, it stays with you months later. You'll see why.

Luminous: The Story of a Radium Girl

Samantha Wilcoxson

Biographical Historical Fiction 

Catherine is an ordinary girl, living with her aunt and uncle in their own small house in Ottawa, Illinois. Theirs is a humble background, and once she's old enough, Catherine seeks employment to help with the household costs.

When Radium Dial, a company producing illuminated clocks, opens in town in 1922, Catherine, then aged 19, applies and is soon hired, together with many other young women. Theirs is regarded as skilled work, and the pay is above average. Everyone is excited. 

The girls are shown how to dip their paint brushes into the radium mixture, then, to ensure an even, thin paint job on the dials, they had to hold the tip of the brush to their pursed lips to make the tip as pointy as possible. The overseer tells them it's all safe, of course, and the manager brushes off any questions with light jokes.

As the years go by, we follow Catherine's working and social life. She is content. Evenings are often spent with friends, listening to music or chatting, having a relaxed drink now and then. Meeting boys. The ordinary life of a young woman. 

Their workplace is soon covered in a find dust, which makes their hair and clothes sparkle. Some paint their nails with the exciting new mixture, delighted to see how they glow in the dark.

But it is after a few years that the first of her friends and acquaintances begin to suffer. Their teeth are falling out and their mouths are filled with ulcers; they suffer fevers and severe weight loss, and often they miscarry. Some develop fast-growing tumours. But causes are noted as TB or cancer, and no doctor in town dares to link their deaths to radium. 

As young women die, and Catherine starts to feel unwell, the first doubts creep in. When, in 1928, the case of five women against a radium company in New Jersey goes to court, people begin to talk, but still Radium Dial insist their product is perfectly safe. Everyone is relieved.

As one of the biggest employers in town, the company has the support from the mayor and all the local doctors who refuse to see the correlation between the girls as one after the other develops symptoms. Some die a very painful death, and their bodies are buried swiftly, but still no one speaks up. This is a sad indictment of how money and power can lead to deaths of workers with tacit approval from local government. Money talks.

Image (c) Samantha Wilcoxson. All rights reserved.

Catherine marries her husband, Thomas Donohue, in 1932, and soon gives birth to two children, a boy and a girl, despite her declining health. By that time, she'd been ’let go’ by Radium Dial as her limp worried other women working there. Her condition worsening, she is soon unable to care for her children, something that must have left her heartbroken.

As her health declines, she and her husband seek help from doctors further afield. Some agree it might be radium, but still no one wants to blame the company. Eventually, after many years, she finds a lawyer, Leonard Grossman from Chicago, who is prepared to forego a fee in order to raise awareness of Radium Dial's diabolical practices. At times, even he loses faith in the legal system, as Radium Dial appeal against every decision. Until they are finally denied by the Supreme Court and ordered to pay reparations.

"It's too late for me, but maybe it will help some of the others."

                                                      - Catherine Wolfe Donohue

Sadly, Catherine died before receiving any payments, and as the company had moved their assets to a different branch, the payout was pitiful, not even remotely covering the cost of her healthcare which had seen Tom and Catherine take on a mortgage against the house she'd inherited from her aunt and uncle. 

But as a result of her brave persistence, the case raised awareness of the dangers of radium, and of exploitation of workers by greedy corporations to the detriment of their health. Soon after, the first workers rights laws were introduced.

In taking us through Catherine's pitifully short life full of pain, Ms Wilcoxson has created a moving tale of young hope dashed, of slow, debilitating illness, and of corporate arrogance. With great compassion, the author shows Catherine's suffering, but also her stubborn bravery in face of pain and certain death. It took guts to take on a company like Radium Dial, so revered in the upper circles of Ottawa, Ill. Many girls didn't dare speak out for fear of losing their job, and eventually they died sad, agonising deaths.

Reading this novel was the first I'd heard about the Radium Girls. The term itself doesn't convey the horrors they must have felt, the pain and debilitation. And the lack of public support, rather finding themselves ostracised for daring to accuse a well-respected business. They must have felt so alone, so abandoned.

You'll need plenty of tissues when reading. I got through several packs. But this story isn't over once you finish the book. It stays with you. It makes you angry and sad at the same time. And you cry for all those lost lives, all unnecessarily. They were young girls full of hope of fun, marriage, children, one day becoming grandmothers, maybe travel. Alas, most did not live to see their children grow up – if the youngsters survived at all.

Meanwhile, the company's legal eagles sought to secure their losses, and there was nothing anyone could do. Today, there are still companies abusing employees (long working hours without breaks or zero-hour contracts, for example). Their methods have changed, but profit rules as it has always done. That's the depressing truth.

As for Catherine, over eighty years later, her body is still glowing in its lead-lined coffin, encased in concrete. I wonder when she will finally find peace. 

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.



A young girl's life is set on an unexpected course when she accepts a job at Radium Dial. She soon finds out, however, that the excellent pay is no recompense for the dark secret that lurks in the paint that magically made her glow in the dark. 

This is the story of brave Catherine Donohoe who takes on the might of a big corporation and became an early pioneer of social justice in the era between two world wars. Emotive and inspiring - this book will touch you like no other.

"It's too late for me, but maybe it will help some of the others." ~ Catherine Wolfe Donohue

Catherine's quest for social justice in the era between World Wars is emotive and inspiring.

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About the Author:

Samantha Wilcoxson

Writer of historical fiction and sufferer of wanderlust, Samantha enjoys exploring the lives of historical figures through research and visiting historic places. Certain that no person is ever purely good or evil, she strives to reveal the deep emotions and motivations of historical figures, enabling readers to connect with them in a unique way. Samantha is an American writer with British roots and proud mother of three amazing young adults. She can frequently be found lakeside with a book in one hand and glass of wine in the other.

Samantha's next project will take readers into the lives of women of the American Revolution - stay tuned!

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  1. This is such a wonderful review, and I am so honored. Thank you so much!


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