The violent death of her best friend leaves steadfast Alice Barrow trapped between loyalty to her co-workers at the Lowell cotton mill and love for the boss’ son, in a gritty historical romance from Alcott (The Dressmaker, 2012).
Workers’ rights in the early 19th century underpin Alcott’s second novel, which, like her best-selling debut, is based on actual events, in this case, the murder of New England mill girl Sarah Cornell in 1832. Alcott’s Cornell, known as Lovey, is the lively but reckless young woman who shows newcomer Alice the ropes. Working conditions at the mill are harsh and dangerous, and the hours are long, but there is a powerful camaraderie among the young female loom operators. The mill-owning Fiske family seeks to pacify growing unrest, and Alice is chosen as intermediary, her dignity and bravery impressing eldest son Samuel Fiske. But when Alice returns to Lowell after the meeting, she learns Lovey has been found hanged. The rest of the novel divides itself between the murder trial and the growing relationship between Alice and Samuel, against a backdrop of trouble at the mill. After Samuel’s father derails the trial to save his family’s reputation, leaving the workforce mutinous, can Alice and Samuel ever find common ground?
Despite a misleading title and a near-superfluous romance, this spirited story of young working women making hard choices has a compelling core.