Thursday, January 22, 2015

Review: The Daring Ladies of Lowell by Kate Alcott

When I think of the Industrial Revolution, I tend to think of England, the Luddites, and the pictures of peppered moths from science textbooks illustrating evolution at work. (You remember those moth pictures, right? The ones where peppered moths were typically white speckled with black before the industrial revolution but became almost entirely black so they blended in with the soot covered leaves.) I rarely think of the mills and factories in this country but occasionally it does creep into my consciousness. There's Ford's assembly line and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, both of which date to the early 1900s but even before that there were factories and mills operating in the US. They were both great economic opportunities and potentially dangerous and deadly for the workers employed there. Kate Alcott's latest novel, The Daring Ladies of Lowell, offers up the story of one such fictional mill and the opposing political ideas about mills and mill workers that swirled around even as early as the 1830s.

Alice Barrow is newly arrived in Lowell, eager to find work as a mill girl, to forever escape her father's farm and become independent. She finds a room in a boarding house with several other mill girls who quickly become her closest friends, especially the cheerful and occasionally reckless Lovey. As she settles into her work at the looms, she sees firsthand the dangers that abound in the mill: dangerous machinery, unavoidable inhalation of cotton fibers, and appallingly long work hours that make workers careless out of fatigue to name just a few. Alice quickly becomes a voice in defense of the mill girls and the problems with their working conditions, even as she worries about Lovey's sudden secretiveness and tries to stop herself from being drawn to Samuel Fiske, the mill owner's son. When she returns from a futile dinner at the Fiske's Boston home where she was meant to be an emissary between the mill workers and the Fiskes but where her ideas were roundly dismissed or ignored, it is to find Lovey missing. And the following morning, there is the horrifying discovery of Lovey's hanged body. First ruled a suicide because she was pregnant, her death is later considered a homicide and the ensuing trial accusing a magnetic itinerant preacher of her murder becomes both a referendum on the character of the mill girls and a way in which the Fiske family hopes to turn prevalent political opinion on the mills to their side.

Based on an actual crime committed against a mill girl, the story highlights the need for reform and the fact that to the owner-class the dollar is mightier than the well-being and health of the workers. The novel really only skimmed the surface of these issues though, uncertain if it wanted to be about the labor movement and opportunity cost of mill work, if it wanted to be about the death of Lovey and the questions of morality and right that it raised, or if it wanted to be a forbidden romance between Alice and Samuel. In the end, it touched on all three things but didn't really delve very deeply into any of them. The trial portion of the story and the hidden reason for its outcome are probably the most engaging parts of the novel. The characters, aside from Alice, Lovey, and Samuel, are hard to tell apart even if they are initially described as being very different, blending together as one amorphous character after the initial introduction. The novel's resolution is just a shade too easy and unrealistic to be completely satisfying and seems unlikely given all that went before it.  Even so, this was a generally interesting tale, raising some worthy points about the history of industrialization in this country.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book to review.


  1. Oh no. Characters that run together. That always trips me up.

  2. Ooooooo...this book sounds fantastic to me. I love this era.

    I "think" I have this on my to-be-read shelf or maybe on my wish list.

    Thanks for a great review and for your thoughts.

    Silver's Reviews


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