Summary: Faced with abominable working conditions, unsympathetic owners, and hard-hearted managers, the mill girls of Lowell have had enough. They’re going on strike, and they have a secret weapon on their side: a little witchcraft to ensure that no one leaves the picket line.
For the young women of Lowell, Massachusetts, freedom means fair wages for fair work, decent room and board, and a chance to escape the cotton mills before lint stops up their lungs. When the Boston owners decide to raise the workers’ rent, the girls go on strike. Their ringleader is Judith Whittier, a newcomer to Lowell but not to class warfare. Judith has already seen one strike fold and she doesn’t intend to see it again. Fortunately Hannah, her best friend in the boardinghouse—and maybe first love?—has a gift for the dying art of witchcraft.
Thoughts: Tell me there’s a book out there that offers a fictionalized account of early unions, fighting to gain new rights that will allow their members to live happier healthier lives. Tell me there’s a book that heavily involves the history of the textile industry. Tell me there’s a book out there where people can solve their problems by use of practical believable magic. Now tell me there’s something that combines all three of those things, and why yes, I do want to read that!
Enter The Factory Witches of Lowell.
The women and girls working at a textile mill in Lowell decide, not unreasonably, that they deserve more than what the company is willing to give them. Better pay, greater workplace safety, the usual things people have to fight for under a system that declares that “the winner” is whoever can give the least while getting the most. But the ensure solidarity, to ensure that all of them are together in the fight, they turn to witchcraft to bind themselves to the goal. It’s a rough trade, given that many of them work to earn money to send back to their families, and striking means no money. But a price must be paid for change, and the women know their value to the company, and compromises must be made to ensure that everybody can move forward again.
This novella could have been 100% real, a true account of a strike at a textile mill in a factory town, were it not for the magic element. I think that’s what makes it so compelling. I love historical fantasy and magical realism, things that are so grounded in the mundane that it makes the extraordinary that much more believable. Malerich did a really job job blending the mundane and the fantastical here; credit where credit is due, that’s a hard balance to strike.
We often take textiles for granted these days, what with new clothes being easy to come by and even easier to throw out most of the time. But Malerich shines a light on the dangers of the early mass production in the textile industry in The Factory Witches of Lowell. Low pay and long hours are obvious problems, and that was (and still is) common in a lot of work. But then there’s the young age of some employees, the danger of losing body parts if one isn’t quick enough with the large mechanical looms, the constant inhalation of tiny fibres that eventually destroy the lungs. It’s that inhalation that partly allows for the clever piece of sympathetic magic to work in the story. Cotton is in all of the employees, literally breathed in every day they work there, and that connection gave them a degree of power over each other and over the work itself. Between that and weaving parts of themselves into a piece of cloth, it made for a powerful binding, and I loved seeing such subtle magic work in tangible and believable ways.
The Factory Witches of Lowell isn’t a long read; I finished reading it in and afternoon, and I enjoyed every moment I spent with it. Malerich’s writing is clear and approachable, the story was interesting and contained aspects that are still relevant today despite the historic setting, and yes, being a geek for textiles made this novella that much better for me. If you’re a fan of historical fantasy and magical realism, then this is one book to look into sooner rather than later.
(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)