Roberta Writes – Sneak peak into my WIP, The Soldier and the Radium Girl

I have returned to working on my WIP after setting it aside for three months following contracting Covid in early March. I finally found the enthusiasm to return to this novel and have added over 6,000 words in the last 2 weeks. This is a short extract which also serves as a warning about the tragic consequences of illegal abortions, a topic which has taken central stage on social media recently. It still needs some work and editing, but I am fairly happy with the structure and content of this piece.

Just for a little context, Grace Fryer is the Radium Girl who led the other girls in the prosecution of their previous employer, the United States Radium Corporation. This was one of the cases in the USA which was significant in the development of occupational safety and health standards. I am of the view she was an young women with an interest in politics and the social issues of the time.

Letter from Kate Henderson to Martha Tanner  

17 May 1918

Dear Martha

The most dreadful thing has happened. One of my co-workers at the studio has died of sepsis and I am so terribly distressed.

Mary’s death was so unnecessary and came about because she found herself in the family way and tried to solve her problem by visiting an illicit doctor.

The doctor perforated her bowel during the procedure, and she developed sepsis. I’d never heard of sepsis before, it is poisoning of the blood, and you die horribly, in the most awful pain.

Charlotte and I went to visit her at the hospital the evening after she sickened. The nurse wouldn’t let us see her because she was delirious with fever and pain.

We went again the following evening, just before she died. The nurse allowed us to go in for a few minutes. She knew Mary was dying, although she never said a word, and I think she wanted to let us say goodbye.

I’ve never seen anyone look so awful. The bones of her face pushed through her waxy skin making her look like a skeleton. Her eyes, she had beautiful eyes, had sunk deeply into their sockets. It made me feel so scared and helpless.

My friend, Grace, was angry about Mary’s death. “Mary’s is an unnecessary and pointless death brought about by the lack of rights for women in this country.”

Grace has been in a state of feverish anticipation ever since the Constitutional Amendment granting women the right to vote was passed by the House on the 10th of January. The vote of the Senate on the matter is to take place later this year. Grace frequently reminds us of the importance of this vote to women.

“Jeannette Rankin did such a splendid job of presenting the case for women’s suffrage to the House. She is right when she says that American women should have a chance to serve their country. Look at us, we are serving America by painting dials for the war effort.”

I must tell you, dear Martha, that it is all confusing and anxiety producing for me. I know from Grace that the New York State Court of Appeals expanded the reasons physicians can use to prescribe contraceptives to married people in January. The use of contraceptives by unmarried couples is illegal and I find it difficult to argue this differently.

Father Baker would be horrified if he knew about the conversations on contraception I witness at the studio. I can’t bear the thought that I’m disappointing him, and I try not to listen. It’s difficult though when we’re all at the same table. Of course, these discussions only occur when Miss Rooney is on the other side of the room and take place in hushed tones. This subterfuge makes me even more uncomfortable.

I wonder what Jake would say about it all. I wish he was here so that I could discuss it with him. I have written to him about some of the discussions at the studio. My friend, Grace, has strong views on women’s suffrage and women in politics and I asked him his views on these issues. He wrote me the kindest and most supportive letter and said he was not against women having the vote. It did help put my mind at ease about being a silent participant in these discussions. Well, I’m not really a participant, I’m more of an observer, but I can’t help hearing what is said.

He did point out that these ideas would not be well received in Millinocket, and I shouldn’t say anything about them to either my parents or yours. Of course, I know quite well that these ideas would not be welcome at home, but I am grateful for his advice and thoughtfulness.

Jake’s last two letters have been short, and he didn’t mention the fighting at all. I know the 26th Division is in the Toul Sector and I read the newspaper articles about the Battle at Seicheprey a few weeks ago with concern. I know the battle was a success for us, but the list of the dead, wounded, and captured was long, so it must have been a tough win.

All Jake said in his letter was that the front lines, including those of the 103rd Regiment, were heavily attacked by the Germans. He said that at first the Bosch secured some of the advanced trenches but that the U.S. counterattacks had succeeded in driving them back and re-establishing the line. Maybe he can’t say much because of the censoring. All his letters have words and sentences that have been blacked out so that is probably the reason. It is a bit frustrating though. I don’t really know what he’s experiencing and can’t offer him any support.

He does complain about the rain and the mud. It sounds dreadful. He said it had rained steadily for five days and nights the previous week and the trenches were full of water.

“We are covered with mud from the tops of our helmets to the bottom of our boots,” he wrote. “It runs off our overcoats and slickers like water.” It makes me shudder to think of him living under those conditions.

On the brighter side, the men keep themselves occupied by playing cards and having competitions about who can shoot the most rats. Jake says he is good at both and wrote about his wins most enthusiastically.

How is everyone at home? How is Mr Tanner? Has his cough improved with the warmer weather? I’m looking forward to hearing from you soon, dear Martha.

I do get a little lonely here in the city, so far away from you all. All the city girls are so worldly and enjoy getting out and about. I am often overwhelmed, and I feel like a country mouse.

Love to you all.


57 thoughts on “Roberta Writes – Sneak peak into my WIP, The Soldier and the Radium Girl

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