Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Conquest of the Useless: Reflections From the Making of Fitzcarraldo, by Werner Herzog

"I looked around, and there was the jungle, manifesting the same seething hatred, wrathful and steaming, while the river flowed by in majestic indifference and scornful condescension, ignoring everything:  the plight of man, the burden of dreams, and the torments of time."
                                                                                                                         -- 299



A couple of months ago I found great joy in reading Ned Beauman's strange but wonderful novel Madness is Better Than Defeat, set mainly in the Honduran jungle which among other things, features a character whose task is to direct a film called "Hearts in Darkness" against the backdrop of an old Mayan temple. What he and his crew of actors and others do not know before they leave is that this same temple is also the destination for another group sent into the jungle, whose job is to dismantle the ruin piece by piece and ship it back to the US.  Eventually both groups come together and a standoff ensues.  One of the things that struck me while reading this book was the director's obsession with finishing this film and getting it just right in spite of the ensuing calamities, and it was impossible to read it without thinking about the making of Apocalypse Now and all of the huge setbacks encountered by Francis Ford Coppola.  After reading the book I looked through several interviews with Ned Beauman, and somewhere (and with apologies, I was dumb and didn't bookmark it), he made mention of Werner Herzog, another obsessive director who made Fitzcarraldo.  I'd seen the movie eons ago but I decided I'd watch it again, which then led me to Burden of Dreams,  the story behind that film.  Both were fascinating, but I wasn't quite finished yet -- I had to buy a copy of Herzog's Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo because at that time I was hooked on this story.  And I had to know what made this man tick.



9780061575549
Ecco, 2010
originally published as Eroberung des Nutzlosen, 2004
translated by Krishna Winston
306 pp -- paperback



As Herzog tells us in his preface, the book is not a collection of "reports on the actual filming," and it is not a journal, "except in a very general sense."  He refers to it as "inner landscapes, born of the delirium of the jungle," but then says that he's not sure if that's really it either.   The book covers the period from June 1979 through November 1981, and while it is filled with some of the struggles he endured while trying to get his movie off the ground, it is also a deeply personal account, suffused with his observations about the Amazon jungle, its people, the rivers, and his relationship with nature,  trying to find some insight into it all while trying to maintain a sense of calm as the leader of the enterprise.   

For anyone unfamiliar with the movie Fitzcarraldo, it is very loosely based on the story of a Peruvian rubber baron, Carlos Fermin Fitzcarrald. As Herzog explains in Burden of Dreams, the director only cared about one part of Fitzcarrald's story, in which he dismantles a ship and moves it across an isthmus onto another part of the river. In Conquest of the Useless he reveals how he sees it:

"It was the vision of a large steamship scaling a hill under its own steam, working its way up a steep slope in the jungle, while above this natural landscape,, which shatters the weak and the strong with equal ferocity, soars the voice of Caruso, silencing all the pain and all the voices of the primeval forest and drowning out all birdsong."
In Herzog's film Fitzcarraldo buys a ship and uses the native people who have joined him and his crew to move the ship up a steep slope to another part of the river where he can access his newly-bought rubber holdings, the profits of which he will use to realize his dream of building an opera house in Iquitos (a la the Teatro Amazonas in Manaus).   I won't go into any great detail here, but what I discovered in reading this book is that there are a number of similarities between Herzog and his character Fitzcarraldo, who is more than once referred to in the film as "the conquistador of the useless."  Both are dreamers, and both in their own way are lunatics, compelled by their visions.    As just one example, Herzog's backers assumed he'd use a model steamship, but no -- as he says here, he had to have a real one "being hauled over a real mountain" because it was stylistically characteristic of "grand opera."   In another entry from February 18, 1981, he goes so far to note the idea of playing Fitzcarraldo himself,  "because my project and character have become identical."  There is no greater truth in this book to be sure.  

One more thing I'll mention is the writing.  As I noted earlier, Conquest of the Useless is not simply a reconstruction of his time in the Amazon jungle while making the film, and Herzog's personal observations are beautifully conveyed through his prose. I noted one that I'll share here, made while he is in Belén near Christmas 1980:
"...Outside I looked down at the river for a long time, trying to regain some composure. Chatas, flat barges, are chugging along, carrying pipes for distant oil-drilling operations. Belén is partially under water. Today at daybreak the birds were pleading for the continued existence of the Creation. For them, anything but the continuation of the status quo is deadly. My watch has stopped now once and for all but for a long time I have been thinking in Amazonian terms anyway: before dinner, after the storm, toward evening. A blind, barefoot beggar was groping his way along the wall of a house. A woman was drinking water from an aluminum pot in which slimy fish from the river, with big eyes, were floating. One of them was dead, its underside white, belly up. Then a child drank from the pot."
 Having seen Fitzcarraldo before reading this book,  I wasn't surprised here at his ability to pick up on such detail, but I came away from Conquest of the Useless  with the conviction that his artistry went well beyond his directing skills. 

Of course, if you're interested in such details as his frustration with Klaus Kinski, or what it was like to work with Mick Jagger and Claudia Cardinale, that's here too, but this book reaches much deeper than a simple tell-all sort of thing.

highly recommended, even for people who haven't seen the movie, but you'll get much more from it if you do.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

The Secret Token: Myth, Obsession, and the Search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke, by Andrew Lawler




9780385542012
Doubleday, 2018
426 pp

hardcover

"Why do people search for Noah's ark?...Why do people search for Amelia Earhart? What is going to come out of it? You can't own it. You get fifteen minutes of fame. But anybody could be that person.  There is a mental illness involved with searching for something that hardly be found. I've seen so many people go over the deep end. It's a disease. that is why the Lost Colony is such a great story." 


I am fascinated by mystery stories, and they don't have to be fictional to capture my interest. This goes back to my childhood when I would read anything and everything, fiction and nonfiction alike.    My mom was a member of the book of the month club (or something akin to it way back when) and I clearly remember running out of library books one day and picking up her copy of The Search for Amelia Earhart by Fred Goerner.  I had absolutely no idea who Amelia Earhart was at the time, but I still remember being held captive by the story and the photos.  I mention that book here because it began my intense interest in "real" mysteries -- you know, the kind you may never find the answers to in your lifetime but which never leave your brain.   For me, the fate of the "lost colony" of Roanoke was another such real mystery stemming from childhood, and I joined the ranks of lost colony obsessives.  But while I may be obsessed,  I'm still picky about what I read and even more so about what I think is plausible, so when I saw that Andrew Lawler (an author I trust whose work I've read many times in The Smithsonian) had published a book about it,  I couldn't push that buy button quickly enough.  It is an informative, thought provoking and downright captivating book that any Roanoke obsessive must read, unless, of course, you're of the alien abduction or yes, even zombie crowd who thrive on more out-there sort of theories.

Most people are familiar with the legend of the lost colony (more on this term later), which says that in 1587, a British expedition found their way to the Roanoke Island off of the coast of North Carolina.  Three years later, a ship carrying John White, the governor of that colony, who had gone back to England in the meantime to pick up supplies for the people left behind, comes sailing back to Roanoke only to find it completely deserted.  While searching for his people, including his daughter Eleanor, mother of the first English child born there (Virginia Dare),  White comes across the letters C R O carved into a tree, but of the colonists themselves there is no sign -- as the author says, just "vanished from history."  So what happened to them?

In his book, Mr. Lawler explains how a chance meeting at a dinner held for speakers of an archaeological conference led to him becoming "immersed in the immense literature that has built up around the Roanoke voyages." It seems that in making conversation with a British archaeologist by the nane of Horton, Lawler discovered that the man was "doing a little digging in a place called Hatteras."  Lawler "jokingly" asked the man if he'd found the Lost Colony. It was the mention of Hatteras and the response "Indeed!" from the archaeologist that sparked the author's curiosity,  but further questioning and a number of emails later were met only with silence once Horton realized that he was speaking to a reporter.  However,  out of the blue a year later, the author received an email from the archaeologist saying that  "we now have pretty compelling evidence for the fate of the Lost Colony."   Hatteras, of course, is the modern name for Croatoan, the location that White felt the original colonists had gone to in his three-year absence.  In fact, there was a contingency plan that had been made before White sailed from Roanoke leaving everyone behind on his last voyage.  As we learn,
"If the settlers were to leave the island, .... they 'should not fail to write or carve upon the trees or posts of the doors the name of the place where they should be seated.' A cross over the name of their destination would mean that they left in an emergency..."
 The letters C R O in the tree along the bank of the north shore,  and the word CROATOAN carved into a post in the settlement itself were part  a "pre-arranged code" -- a "secret token agreed upon between them and me." If the colonists had left in an emergency, they were to also add a cross over the name of their destination.   Since the colonists had not left a cross, White assumed and "greatly joyed" that he had "safely found a certain token of their being safe at Croatoan," although he also wrote that the plan had been for the colonists to move "fifty miles into the main," meaning inland, while Croatoan was to the south. 

Horton invited Lawler to come and view their Hatteras findings, and Lawler began looking into other archaeological work being done, including one being done in the area fifty miles inland, and learned that "there was more to the story than a couple of archaeological digs."  As he became interested in the activities and theories of  "a larger cast of modern characters mirroring the colorful Elizabethans they pursued with such passion," he soon found himself "trying to piece together a bevy of smaller puzzles." 

It is from this point that the book launches into the history and the people "central to the Roanoke missions," followed by an examination of different "clues" both archival and archaeological, including the famous "Dare Stones" and other so-called evidence.  And speaking of the Dare Stones,  the author looks into why the story of Virginia Dare continues to hold such a fascination; he makes some compelling observations about  the role this iconic figure and the Roanoke colonists came to play in an America that saw a number of upheavals including slave rebellions and Native Americans being forcibly moved out west.   He reveals how the figure of Virginia Dare has evolved at different times in our history, going for example, from an icon of racial purity to a symbol of "amends for the wrongs done by generations of whites against Indians."    Finally, he comes across another "secret token waiting to be read," as he explores the matter of descendants of these original colonists, whom he says, were not really "lost," until in the nineteenth century when the Roanoke colony became the subject of a romantic fictional story, with little Virginia Dare at its center. 

 At one point I had to laugh when the author describes how his work had gone "beyond professional diligence and into very obsession" that he'd seen in others.  There are several mysteries to be solved here, but as far as he's concerned, the "lost" colonists were like anyone else who in the same situation would have taken steps to insure their own survival -- it's much  more likely that they did the obvious and assimilated themselves into the nearby Native American tribes.  But, as he says,
"The real power exerted by the lost Colonists was not in archives or archaeological trenches but in the stories they spawned,"
so there will continue to be people who, despite the common-sense answer of assimilation, will continue to spin their own ideas or who will further the myths behind one of the most intriguing mysteries in our history. 

Bottom line: it's fascinating stuff and Lawler is the  right person to put it all together. Very highly recommended. 

Saturday, May 26, 2018

The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps, by Edward Brooke-Hitching



9781452168401
Chronicle Books, 2018
295 pp
hardcover

[My many thanks to the publisher and to the powers that be at LibraryThing for my copy.] 

In the introduction to this book, the author says that
"This is an atlas of the world -- not as it ever existed, but as it was thought to be. The countries, islands, cities, mountains, rivers, continents and races collected in this book are all entirely fictitious; and yet each was for a time -- sometimes for centuries -- real. How? Because they existed on maps." 
The Phantom Atlas is a book that is not only filled with photos of  "the greatest cartographic phantoms ever to haunt the maps of history," but also with a fair bit of the history of these "phantoms" that reveals quite a lot about their respective provenances and most especially the influence that mapping them would come to have on future adventurers and explorers.  And the romance continues:  in the story of the "Lost City of the Kalahari," for example, we discover that as late as 2010 an expedition was mounted to find the ruins marked clearly on a map submitted by  William Leonard (aka "The Great Farini") in the 1880s to the Royal Geographic Society as part of his experiences in southern Africa.  While largely discounted in his own time, in 1923, interest in this "buried civilization" was renewed, and by 1967, as the author reveals, "at least twenty-six missions" had been undertaken, even though there was no actual evidence that this lost city of the Kalahari ever existed. 

And then, of course, there are maps that have had true political implications, as in a modern controversy over Bermeja Island, off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula  at had found its way onto a map in 1539.  Because of oil rights involved, it quickly became a source of controversy when a theory was floated that the CIA had destroyed the island "to ensure US hegemony over the oil fields." 

The Carta marina, by Olaus, from Wikipedia; if you're at all interested Slate has an interactive map 


The book goes on to explore why these nonexistent places began to be mapped in the first place, incorporating elements of mythology, religion, and superstition, but also physical phenomena such as the Fata Morgana.  Then there are the tricksters who felt no compunction about inventing islands or countries either for fame or for cash, as in the example of "Sir" Gregor MacGregor, who set up a scheme involving land ownership in the Territory of Poyais, which appeared on an 1822 map of central America's Mosquitia region.  For just "two shillings and three pence" a person could own a piece of paradise and have the opportunity to "live like a king."  And people went -- only to discover after giving up their cash, that Poyais did not exist; most were just stuck there. When relief came, sadly,  less than fifty people out of the 270 who thought they were off to a better life were actually able to make it home.

The Phantom Atlas is so very nicely done and I'm not simply referring to its amazing, giftworthy quality.  It is  perfect for people who appreciate the artistic quality of the maps that the author's used here and even more so for people like me who enjoy the history behind them.  Some of these accounts are so strange that they could seriously be the basis of pulp fiction, historical fiction, speculative fiction or even horror stories.  The dustjacket blurb calls this book a "brilliant collection," and I couldn't agree more. 



Monday, April 16, 2018

The Littlehampton Libels: A Miscarriage of Justice & a Mystery about Words in 1920s England, by Christopher Hilliard

9780198799658
Oxford University Press, 2017
241 pp

hardcover

A series of poison pen letters being circulated in a small English village is the subject of Agatha Christie's 1942 novel The Moving Finger, yet there are a number of other books in which they appear as well.  Dorothy Sayers, Edmund Crispin, and John Dickson Carr spring to mind immediately as just a few examples; in the hands of these authors murder generally followed as a result.  In The Littlehampton Libels there are no killings, but the poison pen letters circulating in the 1920s within Littlehampton, a "middling town" along the Sussex coast (and beyond), eventually merited police investigations, resulted in four different trials, widespread news coverage,  imprisonment, and, as the title reveals, "a miscarriage of justice."  The stories of the two women involved, according to the author, is a
"kind of English story told over and over in fiction and film but rarely in works of history..."
 And it all began with "a quarrel between neighbors."

In 1918, Bill and Rose Gooding moved into the town of Littlehampton, at No. 45 Western Road.  Rose's sister Ruth Russell shared the house with them and their daughter Dorothy; Ruth had two children of her own.   No. 45 shared garden space with two other houses:  No. 47, the home of the Swan family, as well as No. 49, the "police cottage," where police officers and their families could sublet the house which was rented by the West Sussex Constabulary.  At the time "the libels started flying," the police cottage housed Constable Alfred Russell and his family.  At first, Rose Gooding and Edith Swan (age 30 and living with her parents), seemed to get along well, but an incident in May of 1920 led Edith to call in the National Society of Prevention of Cruelty to Children against Rose, in a complaint of "illtreating a child."  The inspector who came out in response to Edith's complaint found nothing amiss, but it was just after his visit that "a flood of filthy postcards" began, with the bad language escalating each time; since they were signed "R--", "R.G.," or "with Mrs. Gooding's compliments," the assumption was that the letters had come from Rose Gooding in retaliation for Edith's complaints.   Rose consistently denied that the letters had been her doing, and the police were satisfied, but that wasn't enough for Edith -- eventually she consulted a solicitor and instituted a prosecution against Rose for "criminal libel," which ultimately resulted in a two-week imprisonment for  Rose, as well as her being responsible for keeping the peace for two years after her release.   While I won't go into details here, mainly because this bizarre story really has to be experienced on one's own, Rose found herself back into prison, appealed, and her case was reopened, along with a major investigation to find the true culprit which reads at times like something you'd find in a work of crime fiction.

In this truly splendid work of microhistory, written in a way I personally believe the best histories should be written,  the author traces not only the events in this case, but uses his investigation to also examine how, as he says, these
 "outlandish insults form part of a larger story of individuality and originality in unexpected places."
 As Bee Wilson says in her review in the London Review of Books(which you should absolutely refrain from reading until you've finished the book),  The Littlehampton Libels  reveals "the uses and abuses of literacy. " It also gives a concise history of the legal use of libel up to this point in time as well as an insight into how the legal system was used by members of the working class.  It's important to note here that one's respectability as a member of this class was based on several factors and there were gradations in the class structure.  In this particular case, as Mr. Hilliard notes, it wasn't "just circumstances that counted against Rose Gooding," but more to the point, it was the fact that she and her family were viewed as belonging to "a slightly rougher class" than her accuser, a woman seen to be of  "very good character" and one who would never use the sort of language found in the poison pen letters.  As the trial testimony was given, and that particular point was made, something popped into my head right out of Christie's  The Moving Finger  and I had to go look it up.   There's a scene in which Jerry Burton tells us that
"In novels, I have noticed, anonymous letters of a foul and disgusting character are never shown, if possible, to women.  It is implied that women must at all cost be shielded from the shock it might give their delicate nervous systems." 
Given the "foul and disgusting character" of the Littlehampton poison pen letters and the truth behind who actually wrote them, well, I couldn't help but inwardly giggle thinking about that particular passage.

Obviously my short post here just scratches the surface of this book, but The Littlehampton Libels is a phenomenal work of history,  giving credence to the idea that quite often truth is stranger than fiction. I knew it was going to be something right up my alley when I first read about it, and I don't regret forking over more than I generally pay for a book to read it.  I can't speak highly enough about it.


Sunday, March 18, 2018

back in print: The Big Love, by Mrs. Florence Aadland

9781943679065
Spurl Editions, 2018
originally published 1961
205 pp

paperback
my copy from Eva at Spurl -- thank you!!!


Oh my god.  I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into when I started reading this book, and by the time I was finished, I was just sitting here thinking a) that the woman who wrote this book would never win my nomination for mother of the year, and  b) how delightfully trashy it all is.  The Big Love is an example of why I always say yes to Eva at Spurl -- I never know what kind of "unusual literature" they're going to come up with next.    I wasn't too far into it before the thought popped into my head that something's just not right here, a feeling that turned into a certainty the more I read. And in a brilliant move, the publishers have included a piece from Master Detective Magazine of August, 1960, which not only says it all, but which sent me poring over contemporary tabloids, newspapers, etc., for more -- not about the affair described in this book, but about the author herself.

I won't go into too many particulars, but Mrs. Florence Aadland was the mother of Beverly Aadland, who at the age of fifteen began a long affair with actor Errol Flynn.  The true tragedy here is that with Florence Aadland as her mother, this poor girl just never had a chance, but that's not something you'll hear about here.  Let's face it -- one thing that comes out of this book more than anything else is that this is all about Florence. 

 The book, I think, serves more than one purpose for Flo (as she's referred to throughout) -- number one, it's her bizarre way of defending herself against " do-gooder busybodies" as to why she allowed her teenage daughter to have a two-year affair with the actor Errol Flynn, some 33 years her senior (and why she'd let it happen all over again if she could); number two, it's also a way she could continue the exploitation of her daughter's relationship with the actor even after his death, especially in the light of not only her current financial situation, but even more importantly, a  number of legal problems that kept the tabloids busy for a long time.  Especially revealing is how this book begins:
"There's one thing I want to make clear right off: my baby was a virgin the day she met Errol Flynn." 
Even knowing nothing of what was yet to come, I started  thinking "oh my god, this is going to be great."  And it was.

She goes on to say that
"Nothing makes me sicker than those dried-up old biddies who don't know the facts and spend all their time making snide remarks about my daughter Beverly, saying she was a bad girl before she met Errol."
At the time Flo was telling all, she'd been in a lot of trouble, especially when a probation report emerged saying that her daughter had, among other things,  since the age of twelve, "been dating adult men," and that she was a "$100-a-night teenage call girl." 



from WFMU Beware of the Blog

The affair with Errol Flynn began in 1957 when young Beverly captured his eye while the two of them were working at the studio. According to Flo (the facts told later to her by her daughter), he took her out, then brought her home and raped her, tearing her $75.00 dress.  (Keep that phrase in mind -- Flo seems to enjoy putting price tags to everything.)  At the time, Beverly was only 15, but according to Flo, Flynn thought she was much older. (Never mind that in 1943, Flynn had already stood trial for statutory rape of not just one, but two girls)  Flo says that Beverly tried to resist, but afterwards, she couldn't help falling in love with the guy, and the two began a long affair that lasted until Flynn's death.  Of course, not knowing about that first encounter, as Flo relates, she was invited to accompany  Beverly to Flynn's home, where she first realized that with Beverly, he had "won her over completely."  It was only a few months later while on a plane to New York to join Flynn that Beverly revealed the truth; it was then that Florence swore that she was "going to put up one hell of a fight to see to it that he married my daughter."  Her original plan was to "tell him off"; but it seems that the opportunity came and went, being "gone in a flash" since he was
"such a lively character, so flip, so quick to turn a person's thoughts onto a new subject."
Right.  So much for that plan, and the affair begins in earnest complete with mom's blessing, and lasts until Flynn's death. And even then Flo and Bev weren't done, but I'll let others discover in the book what I mean about that statement.

The thing about The Big Love is that it's not so much the affair between a 15 year old and a man 33 years older that kept me reading,  but Florence herself.   It's sadly humorous and tragic at the same time to watch Flo's rather crass, vulgar self take shape within these pages.  She's trying to convince the "do-gooder busybodies" who "never bother to examine the facts," about her little girl, who "went to Sunday School and church for years..." whose life was "preordained" early on when Flo was told that "men are going to kill over this girl. She has the scent of musk upon her."   And then there's that scene at the "tremendously swanky graveyard" at the end in which Flo muses that some people will
"never, never try to understand what kind of man Errol Flynn was and what kind of a person my daughter Beverly is,"
the "kind of people who would condemn Beverly for laughing and dancing at Errol's grave."   They are, as she says,  "people who don't count with us anyway."   Righty-o.

If ever a book could be labeled bizarre, it's this one, and god help me, I enjoyed every trashy second of it.   If you're ever in the mood to read something so bad that it's absolutely brilliant, this is the book. Major kudos to Spurl for putting it back into print.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Radium Girls: Women and Industrial Health Reform, 1910-1935, by Claudia Clark




9780807846407
University of North Carolina Press, 1997
289 pp
paperback

After finishing Kate Moore's Radium Girls, which was okay and did the job the author meant it to do, I wanted to read an historical account of this story.  Where Moore's account is more firmly focused on providing the human face of this tragedy, here we get down to the forces that allowed it to happen in the first place and the attempts made toward reform so that it could never happen again.

As is made clear both in Moore's book and here, the young women who worked painting luminous dials on watches did so by means of lip pointing.  As they put the brushes into their mouths to make them sharper, they were also putting quantities of radium directly into their bodies.  No one at the time could have predicted what would happen next; radium was thought to provide wonder cures, was being sold on the open market;  the dial painters even had fun putting the substance on their teeth, hair, nails, and clothing. 


from Furatermek
However,  dial painters began to show up at their dentists and doctors offices with varying illnesses, including necrosis of the jaw, strange fractures and anemia.  Some of the women and their physicians or dentists began to wonder if their horrific symptoms were related to the radium paint or the factories in which they worked; investigations were made but the powers that be at the dial-painting facilities rejected the idea that the women's troubles had anything to do with the workplace or with their occupation.  In New Jersey, for example, the case of Irene Rudolph led her doctor to make a report to the state Department of Labor, but they found nothing "that conflicted with state factory laws."  Even though one consultant issued a warning that "radium might be behind the illness of the dialpainters," and that "every dialpainter should be warned," no action was taken. Another case came to light in January 1924; by February three of the women were dead, but at every official level where people may have made a difference, nothing was done.  Enter the women of the Consumers' League, committed reformers who worked tirelessly to not only bring these cases into the realm of public knowledge, but to take steps to have radium poisoning defined as an occupational illness, so that the women would have access to compensation.  Without the intervention of the Consumers' League, as the author notes, "the dialpainters would never have established the cause of their illnesses and deaths."

The women's fight to gain recognition for illnesses associated with the industry in which they worked was a long one, and despite the reformers' actions, was often impeded on several fronts. Clark discusses how the factory owners knew about the dangers of radium yet continued to not only deceive these women as to their safety, but it doesn't stop there. Self interest was another factor, in which scientists and physicians who received funding from these companies refused to divulge what they knew so as not to alienate those who funded their work. As she notes, the book traces "the failures of industrial health reform to a faith in the autonomy of 'experts' in both government and medicine."   There's much more here, as she examines the "social and political factors that influenced the responses" of everyone involved.

Clark's Radium Girls manages to give the women in her study a great deal of consideration without all of the litany of suffering that appears in Kate Moore's account, which was one of my big issues with that book. Unlike my experience with Moore's book, in this one  I came away with a better understanding of the historical, social, and legal milieu in which these battles were being fought. And while I was completely absorbed in this book, it wasn' t perfect -- as just one example, as various topics are introduced into the narrative the author ends up having to provide a brief background  so that the book becomes a bit overwhelming in terms of many histories going on at the same time which sort of pulls attention away from the real focus of her work. 

Many readers found this book to be "dry" or lacking sympathy for the dial painters themselves, but I didn't get those vibes at all. Then again, as I told someone recently, I'll probably die with a nonfiction book in my hand because I love getting down to not only the whys and hows of events of the past, but how those past events reflect or have had an effect on the present.  In that sense, I was not at all disappointed with this book, and frankly as someone who knows very little about the history of industrial health,  I found it quite fascinating. 




Friday, February 9, 2018

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women, by Kate Moore

9781429649359
Sourcebooks, 2017
479 pp

hardcover

 I am probably going to be the only person in the entire universe of people who've read this book who wasn't overwhelmed.  The reader reviews of Radium Girls are, if you'll pardon the pun, simply glowing, but while I think the author's intentions were great, and the story definitely compelling, my picky reading self had some serious issues with the way this book was written.

The first I'd heard of the "Radium Girls" was while reading the excellent book by Deborah Blum called The Poisoner's Handbook; I remember being absolutely captivated by the story she told of a New Jersey physician, Dr. Harrison Martland (also the Chief Medical Examiner for Essex County) who in 1928 had sent the bones of a young woman to the New York City Medical Examiner. These bones were all that was left of a once healthy person who had the misfortune of taking a job at the US Radium Corporation (USRC)  in Orange, NJ, where she, along with several other young women had been hired to paint the numbers on luminous wristwatches and clocks.  The method they used to apply the paint was to put the brush into their mouths to bring the tip to a perfect point, dip it into the paint, put the brush into water, and then the process would be repeated.  They even played around with it, putting the luminous liquid into their hair, rubbing it on their teeth, etc.  Even though the paint was made of radium, no one seemed too worried, since at the time it was considered to be great for your health -- people were enjoying radium spa treatments, it was put into toothpaste, skin products, drinking water, cigarettes, and many other items -- so there was absolutely no thought given to negative side effects.  But the girls started to become very ill with a rather mysterious and incurable illness; eventually nine of these girls died by 1924.   The bones sent to the NYC Medical Examiner's office in 1928 belonged to Amelia Maggia, who'd worked at the USRC for four years and died in 1923;  Martland wanted the bones tested for radioactivity.





That small part of Blum's book has always stuck in my head, and reinforced by watching an episode of American Experience based on her book, so I absolutely had to read this book by Kate Moore, whose mission here is to
"illuminate the inspiring young women exposed to the 'wonder' substance of radium and their strength in the face of almost impossible circumstances." 
Starting her story in 1917, she brings a human face to these women who were betrayed not only by their bosses, but also by the governments, the courts, and other individuals who continued to deny the lethal effects of radium as these women were slowly dying. In that sense, without a doubt, Moore's book is successful.  She also brings to light several examples of corporate insensibility, especially toward women, and I counted a number of points she made that as of a century later continue to exist.  Reading this book made me angry; it also makes for compelling reading and is steeped in tragedy.    I should have loved it, and maybe I would have if it hadn't been for the writing.  I am one of those very strange people who looks past the story being told down to how it's being told, and it is here where I had several issues.

First, there are a number of places where we read things like "perhaps," or "She could have meant," or "there might have been" --  in short what we're getting here is a lot of  conjecture.  Then come the literary touches the author puts into this work, for example, on page 107 when she talks about "a troubled look" that "crossed" the face of  Arthur Roeder, the president of USRC (how does she know that?) , or how "the Lord works in mysterious ways," heading a section that could have just as easily been left out with no detriment to the point she was making, or using phrases such as "The light of justice flooded in..."   This sort of thing crops up again and again, and I find it particularly annoying.  We also find ourselves reading things like "by all reports" in which there are no reports cited in the endnotes.  There's a particularly egregious error on page 292, in which the phrase "results that showed...", citing a statistic appears, but when I went to look for the citation, there was none; on page 364 she notes in speaking about a particular dying woman that she "lost approximately one pint of blood every time..." and guess what? No citation. No source, no nothing.  Seriously,  while some people might think that because the author describes herself as a non-academic, scholarship standards shouldn't matter, but that's just not the case.   What I object to the most is the purposeful, purely emotional tugging this author engages in.  To put a human face on these women by talking about the horrors they endured is one thing (and she does it very well), but, as just one example,  when you spend two pages describing the clothes people wore at a funeral, or the ribbon in a little girl's hair, and the prayers said by this little girl after her mother had died, well, that's just a bit much and unnecessary.  We already by this point have an abundance of sympathy toward this woman and the costs of her illness to her family in human and monetary terms, so why belabor the point?  And then, of course, there is the constant repetition of the symptoms of the radium poisoning that manifested in different ways -- she spares nothing and goes into overkill in describing every little bit of oozing pus and blood from a number of the women she's studying here. 

As I said, the author is highly successful in bringing their stories out of obscurity and into the light, in showing her readers that these women were human beings with families as well as victims of an industry that tragically turned its back on them when they needed help the most.  So the bottom line is that while I ended up being caught up in the story of the women she profiles,  became incensed that they suffered so needlessly and were refused help, became irate over the fact that some of the very same practices in the corporate universe of the time continue to exist, the truth is that I just can't overlook the writing here.  On the other hand,  readers are LOVING this book, so once again, I seem to be that little fish swimming against the tide.


When all is said and done, I would certainly recommend Radium Girls  because people should know this long-forgotten story and more importantly, these long-forgotten women in this dark episode of American history.