Resorting to the clichés of historical romance novels, Alcott tells her story through the eyes of a strong male who lacks courage and is at first attentive to his fragile naïf but becomes withdrawn as more questions about her friend’s death arise. The tale is nonetheless always compelling. Alcott’s lively, crisp prose explores the idiosyncratic colors of humanity in time period when the rural is transforming into the industrial and class distinctions are gradually collapsing.
The purchase of real estate, the might of industrialization, and the power of invention are pushing rural towns to grow and expand. As fortunes are made, the wealthy Fiske family jockey for position, all too willing to exploit the cheap labor in the form of farm girls who are paid a small wage and expected to board at their cotton mills. Financial interests strike like lightning in the life of family patriarch Hiram Fiske, who has spent much of his capital on developing the acreage of Lowell, a town growing at an unprecedented rate.
The beautiful Pawtucket Falls turns the wheel that makes the looms work prosper, and the Lowell Bank whispers promises for those who are saving their money. Against this background, farm girl Alice Barrow arrives to board in the darkened dormitory of Boott Boardinghouse in a world of starvation wages and the piercing shriek of the 4:30am factory whistle. Life there is officiated over by Mrs. Holloway, the rule-guided housemistress. Alice is well aware that she needs to find her place in a world where conduct is watched and church is mandatory. At once she befriends Sarah “Lovey” Cornell; the two share private intimacies under the light of a gibbous moon. Alice soon comes to see Lovey as a girl with great spirit, a girl who wants people to believe she’s reckless and perhaps not that smart.
Framing her story around the friendship between the girls, Alcott presents the social and economic mores of the time: the dangers of working in the cotton mills, the suffocating atmosphere, and the hammering, pulsating noise of the looms, the lint and fibers that gather in the girls’ lungs as they cough up the cotton balls, and the treachery of having their hair caught in the constantly moving rubber belts. In desperation, Alice visits conflicted town doctor Benjamin Stanhope, pleading with him to improve the quality of the air in the mill—or at least get the Friske family to agree to open a window. But like many others who work for the mill owners, Stanhope is afraid of losing his own job.
The action is propelled by the discovery of one of the mill girls, found hanged in what could quite possibly be murder. Part of the battle is also the bourgeoning romance between Alice and Samuel Fiske, Hiram’s eldest son (and the expected inheritor of the family enterprise). When the girl’s death is labeled suicide—this woman of “dubious character and loose morals“—Alice inhales for the first time the smell of her own grief. While local Methodist preacher Ephraim Avery had the opportunity and the motive, Hiram becomes the Fiske family’s brilliant, awe-inspiring linchpin, determined to limit the fallout of the girl’s death. Of paramount importance is the protection of the reputation of these farm girls who are flocking to Lowell.
Alcott draws her characters with the intention of showing period class distinctions: Daisy, Samuel and Jonathan, the spoiled offspring of Hiram, live a privileged life in Lyceum Hall, the family home that looms high on a hill above Lowell. While Samuel represents what is typically expected of an elder child, his new sense of social conscience and his admiration for Alice set up a clash with his father, who wants to defend the mills as a shining example of how industrialism can benefit both owner and worker. There are also the mill girls themselves, a colorful assortment of ladies who yield an endless supply of cheap labor. At the center is feisty Alice, who has what it takes even though she must keep in check her growing attraction to Samuel, battle the demons of her daily work environment, and be the courageous star witness in Ephraim Avery’s scandalous court case.
Although Alcott’s clean prose style is well suited to this type of historical storytelling, the tale is unfortunately hampered by the unlikely love affair between Alice and Samuel, a romance we are supposed to believe will somehow miraculously cross class lines. A man who unwittingly unleashes a powerful resentment in his muse, Samuel comes across as a weak character unwilling to pin the murder of a mill girl on a man of the cloth whose religious affiliation Alice readily scorns.
Far more effective is when the action and revelations coalesce with a one-two punch, such as the predictable fallout from Avery’s court case and \ Alcott’s presentation of a corrupt capitalist system that works for the industrialists—not so much for the desperate mill girls, who are only just beginning to fight for some kind of justice before unionization and true change can take hold.