Choosing my non-fiction favorites of 2017 was hard, y’all. I had a difficult time narrowing it down to ten, and then picking my favorite top three was damn near impossible. It was just a really fantastic nonfiction year! My top three (I think?) are listed first, and everything else is listed in alphabetical order.
You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie (2017)
Alexie’s mother, Lillian, died in 2015 at the age of 78; he wrote 78 essays and 78 poems to work through his complicated grief. It’s beautiful and devastating (Alexie actually stopped mid-book tour for his own mental health and will not be doing readings from this book anymore). I read it in one long sitting.
The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore (2017)
Young women in New Jersey and Illinois went to work in watch factories, painting a radium on watch faces to help with the war effort. To get a fine enough point on their paintbrush, they were instructed to put the brush tips between their lips. They were informed that the radium was safe; in fact, it was one of the healthiest things to handle. Then they began dying in horrifying, disfiguring ways.
Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat (2007)
At the age of four, Danticat was left in the care of her aunt and uncle in Haiti while her parents immigrated to New York City. They sent for her when she was twelve, so she came of age in a foreign land. Back in Haiti there was dangerous political unrest, and her father kept urging his brother to join them in the States. What happened when he finally did left the family shattered.
A century ago, radium was one of the most exciting wonders of modern times. Not only could it make things glow in the dark, it also had healing properties that could be used for medicinal purposes. Then America went to war, and the demand for radium products skyrocketed. In 1917, many young women from Newark, New Jersey were presented with the opportunity to work for the Radium Luminous Materials Corporation. Painting radium on watch dials paid well, and the positions were highly sought. The women, most in their late teens and early twenties, were taught how to mix radium — a fine powder that floated everywhere — with water to create a paint. To get a fine enough point on their paintbrush, they were instructed to put the brush tips between their lips. Lip…dip…paint.
The Newark plant was rather strict about how much of their product was used, and the women were reprimanded if any was wasted. Demand for radium products increased, and a second plant in Ottawa, Illinois was opened. There, they weren’t so strict. Radium was fun — and healthy! — and the girls were allowed to take leftovers home to paint on their skin and clothing; their fashionable glow made them the envy at dances.