Catherine Donohue’s life was set on an unexpected course when she accepted a job at Radium Dial. The pay was great, and her co-workers became her best friends. But a secret was lurking in the greenish-grey paint that magically made things glow in the dark. When Catherine and her friends started becoming sick, this shy Catholic girl stood up to the might of the radium industry, the legal and medical communities, and townspeople who told her to be quiet. Would she be too late?
I’m writing this review one week after one of the most violent and destructive cries for social justice my city has ever seen. While the response to the horrendous events was unprecedented, the inciting incident was sadly not new, nor will it likely be the last of its kind to happen here. History repeatedly shows that humans are routinely unjust to one another, and the most outrageous acts of social injustice result in the injured and bereaved crying out for something to be done. Most express their anger and hurt peacefully while others set course outside the bounds of the law to cause more injury. However we express ourselves, when human rights are violated, we make our voices heard.
Some voices are heard. Others are not.
Most commonly, the stories of the injured and downtrodden are left untold. It’s often only the perpetrator and the injured who know of the injury while the world-at-large remains blissfully ignorant. Such is the imbalance between the powerful and the weak. Injustices are covered up, glossed over, and if by chance the stories do come out, masters of spin find ways to maneuver the facts and details expertly to show a carefully manipulated side to the events.
The 1920s and 30s were decades not immune to any of this.
Catherine Wolfe was a quiet Catholic girl from Ottawa, Illinois, and raised by her aunt and uncle. But times were tough following the first world war. Her aunt and uncle were elderly, and medical bills piled up. Work was hard to come by for anyone, but especially for a young woman. When a new business opened up in her town, Catherine didn’t want to pass up on the employment opportunity and gratefully, even eagerly, pursued employment. It was a decision that would impact the direction of the rest of her young life.
Catherine looked forward to her daily work at Radium Dial, a company that hired mostly women, and most of them young women, to paint the luminous dials using radium paint for an industry that was booming. The girls were assured repeatedly by the company that the glowing paint was safe. Using their lips to point the tips of their brushes was how a good employee was to perform her duties, and doing so would make her work the best it could be.
Catherine wanted to please her employers. They were a family at Radium Dial, so she pursued her work with vigor and effort. Her attention to detail made her very productive, and the compensation she received for her hours of employment was better than she could have ever dreamed. Making new friends, and ultimately meeting and marrying her husband, Tom, her life stretched before her. Everything was good, happy, and hopeful.
Until her friends started to get sick. Yes, Catherine had a few odd symptoms, but those were easily explained away. Catherine developed a niggling feeling somewhere in her gut that things weren’t right. But Radium Dial assured her and her friends that the paint was safe. They wouldn’t lie to her, would they? And yet, more and more girls developed inexplicable sicknesses. Then they began to die. Doctors refused to put a name to the illness mysteriously plaguing the women. It was coincidence, they said. It was many other things… but it was not — absolutely not — radium poisoning.
Collusion by the powerful and wealthy is hard to overcome, but when Catherine finally became too sick to deny what was happening to her despite the company’s refusal to acknowledge the same truth, her family and friends knew something needed to be done. Her faith had sustained her, her family and friends had helped her, but Catherine needed justice, and justice would take money. A lot of money. What was she to do?
The story of Catherine Donohue is told lovingly and poignantly in Luminous. Readers are drawn along through a story filled with eagerness, hope, faith and friendship, but with the skill I’ve come to expect from Samantha Wilcoxson. As always, her writing tugs at the heart all along the way. I knew how Catherine’s story would end, and yet, I couldn’t help but find myself still hoping it would end differently.
Luminous is a tale of loss and sorrow, joy and pain told with bittersweet attention and care. If you enjoy historical fiction, women’s history, and biography about the lives of the forgotten, this book is for you. It’s time Catherine Donohue’s life is portrayed to the next generation of social justice seekers.
Buy the book on Amazon.
Samantha Wilcoxson is an American writer with British roots. When she is not reading or travelling, she enjoys spending time at the lake with her husband and three teenagers.
The Plantagenet Embers series debuted with ‘Plantagenet Princess, Tudor Queen: The Story of Elizabeth of York’. It has been selected as an Editors’ Choice by the Historical Novel Society and long-listed for the 2016 HNS Indie Award.
‘Faithful Traitor: The Story of Margaret Pole’ is the second novel in the trilogy, continuing the story of the Plantagenet remnant in Tudor times. This novel has received 5-stars from Readers’ Favorite and a Discovering Diamond award.
The final installment in Plantagenet Embers, ‘Queen of Martyrs’, features Queen Mary I and her story of the counter-reformation in England.
Some of the secondary characters of the Plantagenet Embers series are explored in novellas, including ‘The Last Lancastrian’ featuring Margaret Beaufort and ‘Once a Queen’ which focuses on the final decade of Elizabeth Woodville’s life. In ‘Prince of York,’ Reginald Pole copes with the death of his mother and the Reformation raging through Europe.