When I first saw this title pop up on Tor’s Instagram, I clicked “want to read” on goodreads as quickly as humanly possible. Working girls forming a union? Witchcraft is involved? A real-life New England mill city? Sisters doing it for themselves? Hell yeah, sign me up!
There are Mill Girls woven into the tapestry of my family history, and I am a child and life-long resident of New England. My husband was living steps from the mills of Lowell when we met, and we moved soon after to the former mill lodgings along the Merrimack in Manchester, New Hampshire. I went on field trips to mills in elementary school. You say mill, and I say “tell me more!”
Well, “tell me more” speaks to my all-together experiences with The Factory Witches of Lowell. This is a story that suffers greatly from it’s novella-length; there just wasn’t enough time for satisfying descriptions of the world or the women (and witches) within. There is a rich history to be found in the mills and the girls that worked them, but C.S. Malerich spends their time barely sketching one girl from the next. The only difference from one girl to the next is the color of their hair.
The mill girls of Lowell are mighty; they are unionizing and using their collective power AND magical powers to force the hand of the fat cats who lord beyond the mills. They are seizing the powers of production through spell-craft. They are binding themselves to one another through spit, blood, and woven hair. Why then is this story so drab? The characters blend into one another, the action is repetitive, and motives are fickle and fleeting. Powers oscillate between being kitchen magic and being otherworldly might. People are dedicated to the cause on one page and utterly confused and uninterested on the next.
There’s a promise of queer romance that also gets muddied and cast aside until the very end. One does not need to engage in physical acts of love or intimacy to “prove” any sort of queerness- in fact, the idea that “no sex = not queer” makes me irrationally irate – but the relationship between the girls within this book is both tacked on and cast aside. Our main duo are bound together, sure, but we really do not get a picture of who they are other than “witch” and “agitator”, why they connect so deeply, or what they see in each other other than the practical role that they each play in the mill strike.
For such a short book, there is a startling absence of both characterization and plot. We know the girls by hair color. That’s about it. One is described as having a “rosebud mouth” as her defining feature, and every single time that character speaks or enters the scene there is another comment about that “rosebud mouth”. I am ready for thorns and vines to spring forth from that mouth, choking out the mundane and repetitive beats brought out time and again by Malerich.
I wish this book had been more. I wish the mill girls were more than just that: a collective label on a group of women and children who broke themselves upon the altar of capitalism. The Factory Witches of Lowell could have been something special, but it’s just another slice of history where we think “oh, what about witchcraft?” instead of honoring the actual work, sacrifice, and power given by the women within.