by Kate Alcott
Looking for a life better than the one that awaits her on her family’s farm, Alice Barrow becomes a “mill girl” in Lowell, Massachusetts. The work pays decently, and Alice enjoys her new independence, but the machinery is difficult to use and dangerous. When she dares to speak up about the ill effects of the mill on its workers’ health, Alice fears she will be fired – but her boldness has caught the eye of Samuel, the owner’s son, who convinces his father to make a show of listening to Alice to generate good publicity for the mill. When one of the mill girls is found strangled to death, Alice is determined to see her friend’s killer brought to justice, even if it ends up costing her the job at the mill and the budding romance between herself and Samuel.
The star of the novel is not the protagonist Alice or her romantic interest Samuel, but the vivacious Lovey Cornell. When Alice first arrives, it is Lovey who takes her under her wing and shows her how to work in the factory. Lovey is energetic, generous, and passionate. She simply bubbles over with enthusiasm. While some of her opinions are pretty modern for the 19th century, she never feels like a 21st century girl thrown into the past. She’s utterly believable, and when she is found dead early in the story, it’s heartbreaking. But the loss of such an engaging character is the impetus to awaken Alice into an interesting character, so it’s a necessary exchange.
Alice may have captured the attention of Samuel Fiske, but their separate stations in life means that any attempt to act upon their attraction to each other would be socially devastating. The only person sympathetic to their situation is Samuel’s aged grandmother, a former saloon singer. Her ordinary origins have been largely obscured by her son, who wishes the world to see his family as refined and upper-class. But Gertrude Fiske encourages her grandson, reminding him that fortunes are won and lost every day, but finding the right woman happens rarely. Still, Samuel’s reserve prevents him from acting on his feelings, so the romance is largely on a backburner for most of the story.
As an exploration of life in a mill, the book is fascinating. It’s filled with little details that really drive home how dangerous the mill work was – girls inhale tiny bits of cotton as they work on the mill floor, and after a while they start coughing up “cotton balls”. How gross is that? Many develop respiratory problems or are injured by the machinery. But the book is balanced – for many of the girls, the fact that they can earn wages and attend educational lectures and live with other girls their age far outweigh the negative aspects of their work. These young women were early pioneers, proving that women could work alongside men in factories, and reading about their struggles is a pleasure. Now that I’ve finished the novel, I’m hoping to find some good non-fiction books about the lives of women workers in 19th century industrial jobs.
4.5 out of 5 stars
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Peeking into the archives...today in:
2013: Written in Red (The Others #1) by Anne Bishop
2012: Fashionista Piranha on hiatus until May 24th
2011: Three Cups of Criticism: Jon Krakauer and 60 Minutes censure Greg Mortenson's work
2010: The Creation of Eve by Lynn Cullen
2009: Completely nothing to do with books – sorry!