September 16, 2013
Alcott’s second novel, following The Dressmaker, focuses on the mill girls of Lowell, Mass., unlikely workhorses who powered the country’s early textile industry. It’s 1832 and Alice Barrow has fled her family’s New Hampshire farm seeking money and freedom. Though the dormitories are Spartan and the hours long (13 per day), the job gives her access to the mill’s literary magazine, The Lowell Offering; speakers at the Lyceum, including President Andrew Jackson; and Saturday afternoons in town. Alice quickly befriends Lovey Cornell, who at 23 is the mill’s chatty and sassy elder stateswoman. However, she also experiences the downsides of working in the mill, including polluted air and dangerous machinery. By speaking up in front of Jackson during the president’s visit, Alice draws mill owner Hiram Fiske’s ire, but also catches the eye of his son, Samuel. Soon afterward, Lovey is found hanged in an apparent suicide and the tension between workers and management begins to boil over, threatening Alice’s prospects for a relationship with Samuel. Alcott draws on a real-life trial to lend authenticity to her romantic story. For readers looking to expand their knowledge of feminist history, the book will illuminate and satisfy. Agent: Esther Newberg, ICM.