The Daring Ladies of Lowell is a work of historical fiction set in a textile mill in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1832-33. In addition to including much historical fact about women’s working conditions and life at the mill, it also involves a love story and a murder mystery taken from real life. Kate Alcott (pen name for Patricia O’Brien) takes her readers into the world of her fictional heroine Alice Barrow as she begins work at the mill, gets to know her fellow workers in the women’s dorm, and learns about friendship and loyalty. Alcott tackles issues such as workers’ rights, class barriers, and religious extremism in this very entertaining novel, appropriate for teens and older.
Alice Barrow is 20 years old and like the other young women at the Lowell factory, she has left a difficult rural home life for a shot at independence. All of the “girls” who work at the factory are single and must agree to abide by certain rules of conduct while they are employed there. They must attend church services and not demonstrate “loose morals.” They attend lectures offered by the factory owner, Mr. Hiram Fiske, although they must pay to attend. They have the opportunity to write poems and stories for the factory journal “The Lowell Offering,” too. And of course there is the work. Alcott provides plenty of excellent detail about the work of an early-nineteenth century textile mill. The girls, who live in a factory boarding house, arise with the 4:30 am whistle. They work very long days in a poorly ventilated mill, breathing in cotton fibers which lead to some of them becoming extremely ill. They actually cough up cotton balls and suffer life-threatening respiratory problems. In addition to that, the girls have to work several looms at a time, being careful not to let their hair, clothing or body parts get caught up in the machinery. There is one horrifying description of a young woman’s hair getting caught in a machine. Machines were not kept in good repair, and fire was not uncommon.
For all the danger and long, hard work, however, there were advantages to working at a factory. The textile mill did provide an escape for young women who had abusive families or no family to support them. Living in Lowell meant they could take advantage of shopping (at the factory-owned store) and banking (at the factory’s bank), and seeing a doctor (employed by the factory) when they were ill. Working at the factory also brought these young women together as a kind of family. In this novel, Alice becomes very close with the other young women in her dorm, especially Lovey (aka Sarah Cornell). Lovey Cornell was a real person, and Alcott gives her a fictional back story that feeds into the real story of what happened to her in 1832. Lovey in this novel is a bold young woman with secrets. She has strong opinions and is not afraid to state them, even to those who have power and influence. She is sympathetic to the growing workers movement, makes fun of religious extremists such as a radical group of Methodists in Lowell, flirts with Hiram Fiske’s son Jonathon, and frequently stays out late into the night.
After a lecture featuring President Andrew Jackson, Alice comes to the attention of the Fiske family. Patriarch Hiram wants to use her as their intermediary at the factory, attempting to placate increasingly disgruntled workers without actually giving them anything significant. Meanwhile elder son Samuel is drawn to Alice’s intelligence and independent manner, and Alice finds herself drawn to Samuel when he shows sympathy and kindness toward the factory girls. This budding relationship will test the unity of the Fiske family as well as friendships amongst the factory girls, especially when the murder of a factory girl occurs. Alcott gives us a courtroom drama that demonstrates the power of wealth versus true justice.
The Daring Ladies of Lowell is a most engaging novel. It provides a detailed picture of factory work and the struggles of the nascent labor movement, strong female friendships, a love story, and courtroom drama. While not categorized as YA, it is certainly appropriate for teen readers and would illustrate matters related to work, women, and class in US history.