The Daring Ladies of Lowell by Kate Alcott. Publisher: Doubleday (February 2014). Historical fiction. Hardcover. 287 pages. ISBN 978-0-385-53649-3.
“Her head was pounding, her ears ringing. It was bothering her more today than usual. The endless motion of the machines reverberated through her body—not just in her ears but in her stomach and down in her burning, aching feet. She would soak them tonight, try some of those salts Lovey always used. Alice wiped the perspiration from her brow and looked around. This was home now, strange as that seemed.”
If you grew up in Massachusetts like me, you likely went on a Lowell Mill tour at some point during an elementary school or junior high field trip. I went twice because when my Aunt and cousins visited from Texas they wanted to go. While you rode on a boat along the Merrimack River listening to a guide speak about girls and young women leaving their families from all over New England to work at the Lowell mills it was easy enough to disassociate from it yet dreadful to think about the harsh conditions these women faced back in the 19th century.
Like the Salem witch trials the industrial revolution and bitter working conditions for Lowell mill girls happened essentially in my backyard and I feel particularly close to the plight of the mill girls depicted in this novel. It’s only the second five-star rating I’ve given to any book this year. Kate Alcott vibrantly brings the stories of the Lowell mill girls to the page as she creates strong, outspoken female characters enduring adverse situations that dare imagine and dispute better working and living situations.
“She needed to find her place here, to know when to keep her head down, when to seize opportunity. She would not dwell on it; it would rob her of the thrill of having pushed her way out of a narrow life.”
New Hampshire farm girl Alice Barrow arrives to the Lowell mills in 1832 seeking an independent life from her father. She hopes to save money and makes prodigious plans for her future. Alice never imagined she’d encounter such horrific working conditions. She witnesses a housemate coughing up a bloody cotton ball the size of a golf ball [the fibers they weave get into their lungs]; a girl almost killed when her hair gets caught in machinery; 15 hour shifts; machinery so loud it caused tinnitus; and a 9-year-old bobbin girl who must hide from the mill owners for fear her mother will lose her job. When someone murders her closest friend and confidant, Lovey, it divides the town and pits the mill owners against the workers and places Lovey’s reputation on trial. A young woman like Lovey gets pilloried for having a personal life and many suitors/ paramours/ boyfriends. [Okay, it still happens when a woman gets raped but not as magnified as back in the 19th century when hardly anyone would testify on the dead woman’s behalf.] A roving evangelist gets blamed yet he has supporters in force. Alice takes a stand for justice even if she might lose the man she loves.
Alcott based The Daring Ladies of Lowell on a real case in which someone murdered a Lowell mill girl. I appreciate her meticulous research and attention to detail. It’s both a fascinating portrait and a riveting mystery.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Random House.