Review written by Cori Van HousenRadium Halos is a based-on-truth fictional account of a woman whose life is irrevocably altered by taking on a summer job at the Radium Dial Company in the 1920s. Stout tells the story through her central character, Helen Meisner, in folksy North Carolinian vernacular. As Helen relates the details of her job training (for painting luminescent numbers onto clock and watch faces) one can’t help but cringe with informed hindsight. After exposure to radium, the results play out like the ticking of a neglected timepiece left to run down. And as if that weren’t enough—a grim event that fateful summer forever binds Helen, her sister and friends in a secret nearly as toxic as the radium itself.
Stout’s Helen is striking, a study in simplicity. At turns humorous, feisty, and heartrendingly childlike, Helen’s narrative voice is powerfully blunt. The young Helen and her cohorts are like lost children, groping through life and unfolding tragedy. Looking back from the perspective of sixty five years and into the uncertainties of her own future, Helen’s hinted-at secrets are slowly brought to light as if her mind itself were a chamber of suspense from which it is difficult to extricate things locked inside. “Nobody,” she says repeatedly, “can make me talk if I don’t want to.”
Radium Halos reminds us of workers’ conditions, women in particular, during the last century. Shelley Stout knows the ground well: she is acquainted with Leonard Grossman whose father legally represented the women of Radium Dial before Stout’s birth. Her book highlights the type of inequities which drove the struggle for women’s rights; it is upon the ashes of lives such as are represented here that we now stand. So it is, on one hand, a sobering story. Yet Helen’s earthy naiveté, for all its pitfalls, also serves her well. She endures through tragedy and confusion, never expecting much of good or evil, nor ruminating too much on either. Ever the lost child, she merely perseveres, illuminating this poignant story with hope.