A very blessed Christmas to all my readers! As a little gift from me to you, here is the first chapter of my most recent novel, Luminous: The Story of a Radium Girl. Happy reading! ~ Samantha
The scientific history of radium is beautiful. ~ Marie Curie, 1921
Another mosquito buzzed in Catherine’s ear as she brushed dirt from the freshly pulled carrots in her hand. With her hands full and covered with the rich, loamy soil of her aunt’s garden, her only remedy was to shake her head and try to shrug her shoulder against her ear. After finally dropping her share of the harvest into her aunt’s basket, Catherine swatted at the pest with a vengeance and was rewarded immediately with a satisfying end to the noise.
“I am so thankful for your help,” her Aunt Mary sighed, waving her hands at more of the swarm that had been attracted by the sweat of their hard work. Aunt Mary groaned as she dropped more produce into the basket and put a hand to the small of her back as she straightened. “The whole neighborhood will benefit from this final harvest. I think we have enough put up, so why don’t you take some of this bunch to Shirley?”
“Yes, Auntie,” Catherine demurred, immediately beginning to separate the vegetables into those that their own household would use in the next few days and those that their neighbor, Shirley, would turn into delicious soup.
“She’ll want some of those carrots . . . and some onion,” Aunt Mary called from the next garden row, as if Catherine didn’t already know.
“Yes, Auntie,” she simply replied again, knowing that no insult was intended. “Should I take some potatoes?”
Aunt Mary straightened again and squinted into the sun. Catherine squinted that way too, in subconscious imitation. Finally, Aunt Mary made up her mind.
“Just a few. I’d like a few more bushels in the cellar as well.” Aunt Mary looked down at the ground and rubbed her back. “I think that’s enough for now. I just don’t know what I would do without you, my dear.”
“Then it is good that you don’t have to worry about such a thing,” Catherine reassured her with a kiss on the cheek. “I’ll run this bundle to Shirley and be back before you can miss me.”
“That’s a good girl.” Aunt Mary was already carrying the remainder of their vegetables into her cozy kitchen as Catherine cut through backyards toward a little, grey house that stood with all the doors and windows open to the crisp breeze.
Shirley hastily closed a brown glass bottle into a cabinet as Catherine strolled into the kitchen, shouting, “Hello,” to announce her presence.
“Look at you loaded down with veggies, child!” Shirley exclaimed happily. “You know I love nothing better than a rich, vegetable soup.”
Catherine tipped her head in agreement as she dumped Shirley’s share of the produce onto the table.
“Very nice. Very nice,” Shirley murmured as she inspected the haul. “I’ll bring you and your auntie a fine pot of soup tomorrow.”
“Thank you, Shirley.” Catherine scooted out before the older woman could strike up more conversation. It was easy to find oneself trapped in the little house all afternoon if the friendly woman got talking.
Reentering her own home, Catherine picked up the Ottawa Daily Times that her Uncle Winchester had left on the kitchen table.
Catherine gazed at the advertisement, absentmindedly gnawing at the inside of her cheek. She had heard of Radium Dial. The factory was across the road from St Columba, where her family worshiped each Sunday morning. Running her tongue over the tender spot her teeth had created, Catherine weighed her options. A job as a watch dial painter would take her away from home during hours that her auntie might need help, but it would provide income to cover medical bills that had been increasingly occurring as her aunt and uncle aged.
The thought of those wages was more than Catherine could deny. It took her only a moment to firmly scoop up the paper and charge out of the house. Indecision was not one of Catherine Wolfe’s weaknesses. Her course determined, she forged ahead confidently.
Superior Street was quiet. Soon children would fill the yards as they were released from school, allowing them to run off the energy that they were forced to hold in throughout the day. For now though, scurrying squirrels and dry leaves blowing across the cobbles were the only sounds. It was out of Catherine’s way to walk along the river, but the autumn splendor made it worth it. The trees did not maintain their colors for long. Soon snow would fall, and shades of grey would blanket the fallen leaves.
The Fox River flowed a few blocks from Catherine’s house, and the vibrant views refreshed her soul, giving her the boldness she needed to request a job that she knew many other Ottawa girls would apply for. Radium Dial had been in town since the Great War, and all the girls knew that it was the best paying work they could hope for in this part of Illinois.
At that thought, Catherine accelerated her stride, suddenly irritated that she had frivolously chosen the scenic route. What if the positions were filled before she arrived?
Where the river met the end of Washington Street, Catherine turned west and forced herself to remain calm. The few blocks extra that she had walked couldn’t possibly make a difference. Could it?
An old saloon stood with its windows boarded shut, looking dark and desolate. Catherine knew that to be the furthest thing from the truth. Once the sun dipped below the horizon, a secret door in the back would welcome in more people than the front entrance had before Prohibition had begun. She tried not to examine the saloon too closely. You never knew who was watching, and Catherine would not want to be responsible for giving away her neighbors’ secrets, even if she did not imbibe herself.
Catherine paused in front of the old high school that was now the home of Radium Dial, gazing up at the brick façade. A faint smile curved her lips as she admired the craftsmanship and variation in color in the arched window frames. The new high school might be more practical, but it lacked the Victorian beauty of this building. Her smile broadening, Catherine marched inside, her dark, bobbed hair bouncing as she ascended the steps.
She was directed to a smartly dressed lady who appeared to be about her Aunt Maggie’s age. However, Lottie Murray had an air of sophistication that the middle-aged housewife could never attain and didn’t desire. Miss Murray was one of those progressive women, who pursued a career instead of marriage. Catherine couldn’t imagine making such a choice for herself but was somewhat awestruck at Lottie’s evident success.
Trying not to compare her off-the-rack dress to Miss Murray’s tailored suit, Catherine carefully answered questions about herself. She was a dedicated parishioner at Ottawa’s St Columba Church and had recently turned nineteen. Since there were no marriage proposals apparent in her future, she wished to contribute to the household she shared with her Uncle Winchester and Aunt Mary. They had raised her since the death of her father almost ten years ago.
Miss Murray, who was kind but seemed to hold her head up just enough to look down her nose at Catherine, seemed satisfied with her answers.
“Please, report to Mrs Mercedes Reed promptly at seven tomorrow morning,” Miss Murray ordered to indicate that Catherine was hired. She stood and gestured toward her office door. “She will see to your training. If you complete that satisfactorily, she will direct you as to the next step.”
“Thank you!” Catherine gushed, quickly rising from her seat to follow Miss Murray’s instructions. She tried to temper her excitement, for she felt it gave away her youth and naivety, but a grin lit up her face as she repeated, “Thank you, Miss Murray,” and left the small office.
Miss Murray rewarded her with a perfunctory nod before closing the door the moment Catherine was through it. Crossing her arms to give herself an enthusiastic squeeze, Catherine stood outside Miss Murray’s office basking in her good fortune. Dial painting was a lucrative job in an exciting new industry. Girls were dying to get into Radium Dial’s studio.
Catherine repressed a squeal as she made a show of slowing her footsteps and strolling out of the building as though she obtained exciting new jobs as a part of her daily routine. Once outside, she allowed herself to quicken her pace. Safely away from view of the old school windows, she cheered and leapt into the air, finally able to channel her joy.
She was halfway home before she realized that she should have crossed the road to give thanks within the familiar walls of St Columba. It could wait until Sunday. She was too anxious to tell Aunt Mary and Uncle Winchester about her great news.
Superior Street was filled with playing children upon her return, and Catherine felt that it had been a lifetime since she had been a part of that group, though it had been just a few short years ago.
In the middle of a block, half hidden behind a tall maple tree, stood the white house with black shutters that Catherine called home. She jumped over the porch steps and called for her aunt as she opened the door.
Catherine did not remember much about her mother. It was her Aunt Mary who had nursed her when she was sick, comforted her when her heart was broken, and guided her along her path to becoming a respectable young woman. Much of the time, Mary could be found in her small galley style kitchen preparing the day’s meals or putting up canned goods for the future. That is where Catherine found her.
“Auntie, I have the best news!” She kissed a softly wrinkled cheek and leaned against the counter.
“What is it that has you so excited?” Mary asked as she slid a roasting pan into the oven.
“I got myself a job at the dial studio.” Catherine grinned openly, any doubts she had about leaving the home for outside work buried deep beneath her sense of victory.
“Why, that’s just wonderful. It will be a good thing for you to be able to set a little money aside.”
“And help you and uncle.”
Shaking her head, Aunt Mary protested, “Now, we don’t need your money. It would be wrong for us to take it from you.”
Catherine just smiled and kissed her aunt again. She would find ways of contributing without having to put cash into Aunt Mary’s hand. “Where is uncle?”
Aunt Mary gestured vaguely toward the back yard. “I believe he is working in the vegetable garden. Go tell him your news.”
Catherine skipped out the door, eager to do just that. Her Uncle Winchester was indeed pulling weeds with an eye out for anything Catherine and Mary might have missed. He took longer breaks to stand and stretch between rows these days and couldn’t seem to completely straighten any longer.
He did not notice Catherine until her arms wrapped around him.
“Well, where did you come from?” he laughed, squeezing her to his side.
“You won’t believe it. I’ve just come from Radium Dial. They’ve given me a job!”
“Good for you, little Cat!” He patted her shoulder and eyed the next row of plants.
“Let me finish that for you,” Catherine insisted, knowing how his back must be aching. “I’m sure Aunt Mary could use your help inside.”
She was actually certain that Aunt Mary would provide him with a glass of lemonade and send him out to the front porch swing. He likely knew that as well, but he nodded and shuffled toward the house.
“Thank you. I will see what she needs.”
Catherine quickly completed the work in the garden, energized by her new adventure. By the time she had finished ridding the garden of weeds, Catherine, too, was ready for a tall glass of lemonade and a couple of her aunt’s famous oatmeal cookies.
The next morning, Catherine found her way to Radium Dial’s training room. Her heels click-clacked on the oak floors in an animated rhythm until she reached the door Miss Murray had indicated. With a deep breath, Catherine grasped the handle of the heavy, wood door and went inside.
The room was clearly an old classroom, large and high-ceilinged. Sun shone in, but a dusty haze hung in the air. Upon further inspection, Catherine realized the girls being trained were even sitting at old school desks. She sighed. At nineteen, she thought she was done sitting at school desks. However, her smile was quickly back in place. What did it matter what desk or table she sat at when she was one of the lucky few chosen to paint using the wondrous new material that made watch faces glow in the dark?
“Name?” A brusque voice tore Catherine from her reflections, and her eyes pivoted to its source. The instructress was somewhere between Catherine’s age and Miss Murray’s with no memorable features. Catherine thought she was the kind of woman one could pass on the street and not realize you had done so.
“Name?” she repeated.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” Catherine said, moving forward with her hand extended. “I am Catherine Wolfe, and Miss Murray instructed me to present myself to you today. That is, she did if you are indeed Mrs Reed.”
“Of course, I am,” the thereby introduced Mercedes Reed huffed. “Take an empty seat,” she ordered without taking Catherine’s hand.
Feeling awkward, Catherine quickly dropped her arm and lowered herself into the closest seat. Before she could wonder if Radium Dial would be as fantastic as she hoped under the tutelage of women like Mrs Reed, the girl next to her smiled her welcome, and Catherine was certain she saw her wink. Catherine recognized her from around town but wasn’t sure of her name.
Two more girls came in after Catherine and received the same treatment from Mrs Reed, but the instructress seemed to brighten once they had all taken their seats. Her face relaxed as she took up the tools of the trade that she would train them to use. With the items lined up on a low table in front of her, Mercedes Reed addressed the ten girls who leaned eagerly forward to hear.
Catherine glimpsed at the desktop in front of her to confirm that her own brushes and dials were within easy reach.
“Painting dials is important and delicate work,” Mrs Reed began as she held up a brush with bristles too small to be seen from where Catherine sat. In her other hand, she held a paper watch face. “You will affix the dial like so,” Mrs Reed continued as she demonstrated, “and then apply the paint – very carefully – to the numbers.”
She paused as the girls got their dials in place and picked up a brush.
“The best way to be certain of a fine point on your brush is to dip it into the radium paint.”
She did so.
“And then sharpen the tip of the brush with your lips.”
Mrs Reed pursed her lips and gently inserted the bristles. Then she held it up and walked around the classroom, allowing each new employee to see her perfect point. The girls picked up their brushes, and she nodded to encourage them to try.
“Those of you able to perfectly lip-point and trace the numbers on your dials will be selected to become permanent employees of Radium Dial.”
Catherine’s brow furrowed, even as she slipped the brush between her lips and examined the resulting point. She was glad when a more outspoken girl asked, “Are we not all employees, Mrs Reed?”
Mrs Reed laughed in a not entirely unfriendly manner. “For now, yes, but this is skilled work, and not all of you will take to it. Have you got the point?” she asked, looking at the girl’s brush. “Good. Now let’s try with some paint.”
The girls looked at each other questioningly. None were certain about the radium paint, which appeared a dull greenish-white but they knew to possess special characteristics that made it glow.
“Go ahead then!” Mrs Reed encouraged while demonstrating the technique once again. “Dip. Point. Paint.”
Catherine sat up straighter in her seat, took a deep breath and clutched her brush tighter. She dipped the thin camel-hair bristles into the mixture and peered at it for a few seconds before touching it to her lips. Then she grinned happily at her perfect point.
“Very good!” said Mrs Reed as she walked by Catherine’s desk. “Now try to trace the numbers on your dial.”
Catherine’s grin transitioned to a look of determination as she accepted this new challenge. Ever so slowly, she slid her brush along the straight lines of the number one. Finishing, she realized that she was holding her breath, so she released it and looked around the room to observe her co-workers.
Some shared her look of determination. Others took to the work lightly, and Catherine guessed those would be the girls who had a difficult time succeeding at Radium Dial. The girl next to her looked up at the same time and said, “I’m Charlotte. How did you do?” as she leaned over to peer at Catherine’s dial. “Nicely done!” she said, leaning back.
“Thank you. And yours?”
Charlotte nodded, her lips pressed together. “I think I’ve done alright.”
“I’m Catherine. It’s very nice to meet you.”
They smiled at each other and took up their brushes to dip in the paint for the number two. As the girls worked their way around their first watch face, a few questions were asked and frustrations vented. Catherine ignored most but perked up when she heard Charlotte speak.
“Can whatever makes this stuff glow hurt us? I mean, is it safe to put in our mouths?”
Catherine raised an eyebrow. She hadn’t thought about that, but it was a good question.
Mrs Reed’s laughter was thick with condescension. “Of course, it cannot harm you! In fact,” she elaborated as she returned to her table, “the radium that gives our paint its special properties is beneficial to your health and will give your cheeks a rosy glow.”
To convince them, she took her mixing spatula and used it like a spoon to scoop up the paint and eat it. The girls gasped as Mrs Reed swallowed and took a sip of water.
“As I said, our paint is perfectly safe. If anything, you will feel better after working with it.”
Tension fled from the room and the girls laughed together, taking up their brushes and dipping them in the paint. By the end of the day, Catherine not only felt that she had mastered pointing the brush and tracing the fine numbers, she had made a new friend. When she and Charlotte Nevins parted ways upon reaching Superior Street, Catherine was already looking forward to work the following day. Continuing down her street, Catherine was surprised to realize that less than forty-eight hours had passed since she had seen the advertisement for dial painters. She was so glad that she had followed her instincts and applied. It was a decision that would change her life.