“Alice is cast in the mold of a character created by an earlier Alcott, the passionate and spunky Jo March. A refreshingly old-fashioned heroine, she makes THE DARING LADIES OF LOWELL appealing”
--The New York Times Book Review
“Offers up a compelling slice of both feminist and Industrial Age history”--Christian Science Monitor
From the New York Times bestselling author of THE DRESSMAKER comes a moving historical novel about a bold young woman drawn to the looms of Lowell, Massachusetts--and to the one man with whom she has no business falling in love.
Eager to escape life on her family’s farm, Alice Barrow moves to Lowell in 1832 and throws herself into the hard work demanded of “the mill girls.” In spite of the long hours, she discovers a vibrant new life and a true friend—a saucy, strong-willed girl name Lovey Cornell.
But conditions at the factory become increasingly dangerous, and Alice finds the courage to represent the workers and their grievances. Although mill owner, Hiram Fiske, pays no heed, Alice attracts the attention of his eldest son, the handsome and reserved Samuel Fiske. Their mutual attraction is intense, tempting Alice to dream of a different future for herself.
This dream is shattered when Lovey is found strangled to death. A sensational trial follows, bringing all the unrest that’s brewing to the surface. Alice finds herself torn between her commitment to the girls in the mill and her blossoming relationship with Samuel. Based on the actual murder of a mill girl and the subsequent trial in 1833, THE DARING LADIES OF LOWELL brilliantly captures a transitional moment in America’s history while also exploring the complex nature of love, loyalty, and the enduring power of friendship.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.40(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.30(d)|
About the Author
Kate Alcott is the pseudonym for journalist Patricia O’Brien, who has written several books, both fiction and nonfiction. As Kate Alcott, she is the author of The Dressmaker, a New York Times bestseller. She lives with her husband in Washington, D.C.
Read an Excerpt
Alice stepped gingerly into the darkened dormitory, holding her breath against the unexpected. An oil lamp flickered, turned so low she could see no more than a line of cots squeezed close together in a long, narrow room. The air was close, aromatic with the scent of warm bodies.
“Who are you?” demanded a sleepy voice.
“Alice Barrow. I’m from New Hampshire, here to work.” It didn’t seem enough, but she was worn to the bone from her long coach ride to this gritty, bustling mill town that promised so much.
“Lordy, another one.” This was a second voice, bouncy and light, with a hint of mischief. “Move over, girls. Here we go again.”
“They shouldn’t be waking us. She’s got to take the far bed, I’m not giving up this one,” declared the first voice, now on the edge of indignation.
“Calm down, Mary-o, there’s one empty.”
Alice began climbing over the still, shadowy figures, unnerved by their smothered giggles and deliberate pokes from unseen feet. She counted: she had to crawl over five almost invisible people before she got to the last bed in this small dormitory. “What’s your name?” she said into the dim light, in the direction of the most friendly voice.
“I’m Lovey. Welcome to Boott Boardinghouse, number fifty-two, your new home. You’re in Dormitory A; six of us now. They’d better not try squeezing in another bed.”
Then more gently, “You’ve come a long way to get here this late. Hope they fed you.”
“Parsnips and potatoes.” Alice’s stomach lurched slightly. She untied her green cloak and folded it carefully at the end of the bed. Her bandbox, more books in it than clothes.
“Not feeling too good, I’ll bet. The potatoes were turning black at breakfast.” Lovey broke into giggles.
“Don’t listen to her,” piped up a calm new voice. “She’s a bit of a wag; sports with every new girl that comes along. There’s nothing wrong with the potatoes, Lovey just likes to make trouble. Anyway, nice to meet you. I’m Tilda, hope you don’t snore.”
Alice felt for the blanket covering her bed; it seemed warm enough. Her eyes were adjusting. The girl named Lovey was two cots down, sitting up now, her thin shoulders sheathed in what appeared to be a white muslin gown. The figure between them lay huddled under a gray coverlet, ignoring them as she whispered to herself.
“That’s Jane,” Lovey said casually. “Congregationalist, you know. Always praying, for people like me, mostly. Maybe you do too, unless you’re one of those revivalists who weep and sing all the time. Why are you here?”
Alice replied with carefully rehearsed firmness. “To earn enough money to help my father with his bills and save so I never have to work on a farm again. At three dollars a week, I can do it.”
She must keep repeating that to herself. It was all that had kept her steady when she left home.
“Get to spend any for fun?”
“A little. Enough.”
“There’s no such thing as enough, not with the starvation wages here,” Lovey muttered.
“Nobody’s starving,” said the one named Tilda, audibly smothering a yawn. “Stop grumbling, Lovey—let the girl sleep. You can complain in the morning.” Her easy tone seemed effective, for Lovey said no more.
Alice pulled back the covers, easing herself into bed. There was no use hunting for her nightdress; the girl named Mary-o would just complain again. And no use saying more to the one named Lovey, either. It didn’t matter. She shivered, but not from cold. The most important day of her life was almost over, and she wanted now only to rest. She had done it, she had made the leap. No more cleaning up cow dung, no more twisting the necks of squawking chickens. She was a factory girl now; she’d soon be working the looms and making money. Tomorrow it would begin.
Alice closed her eyes, dropping her head onto a thin pillow. No one was talking; she could drift and let go.
A sound intruded. A slight, hiccupping sob, a sound so lonely that it pulled at her heart. “Who’s that?” she asked in a whisper to Lovey.
“That’s Ellie, our bobbin girl. A hard worker, better than most.”
“How old is she?”
“Nine or ten.”
“Why is she crying?”
“Her legs. A bobbin girl does a lot of running. We take turns rubbing them for her.”
“Can’t anyone comfort her now?”
“She wants Delia, her sister. But Delia’s on kitchen duty until midnight this week.”
An unease floated over Alice, so ephemeral she could give it no shape or words, nor push it away. The bobbin girl’s weary cry followed her into her dreams, and somewhere, somehow, it ceased. Only then did she join the others, still invisible, in deep sleep.
The piercing shriek of the factory whistle at 4:30 a.m. was the loudest sound she had ever heard. It made her teeth ache. She lifted her head from the pillow, blinking at the sight of girls flinging themselves out of bed, pulling off nightdresses, putting on blue work shifts, and heading for the door. No washing up? She saw a basin and pitcher behind the door, but no one approached it.
“You’re late already, hurry up.” The lighthearted voice of the night before was husky in the morning chill. She looked into Lovey’s face, which didn’t quite match what she had imagined in the dark. It was all motion: thin and lively, not exactly pretty, but with a mouth that smiled easily and eyes that flicked restlessly about. She looked capable of switching moods with great speed. Right now, her eyes showed impatience.
“Breakfast, rotten or not, in five minutes,” Lovey said, clapping her hands together. “I can see I’m going to have to push you along.”
With a twinge of annoyance, Alice pulled on the smock she had been issued last night and ran her fingers through her long, chocolate-brown hair. “Nobody has to push me along. I’m ready,” she said.
Lovey shook her head. “Pull your hair up, twist it tight. Here’s a knitting needle to hold it.” She grabbed a needle from a bag filled with yarn and held out her hand.
“I don’t like braiding my hair up.” Really, who was this person ordering her around?
Lovey’s eyes darkened. “Just do it.”
Alice jammed the needle through her sloppily twisted bun with more force than necessary. She wasn’t going to get in an argument with anyone on her first day.
The boardinghouse dining room, papered in a tight gold-and-brown windowpane pattern, was immense and claustrophobic at the same time. On the narrow mantel, perched perilously close to the edge, sat a worn-looking chiming clock. A watercolor of a child playing with a rag doll hung slightly askew next to the swinging door that led to the kitchen. There were five tables covered in oilcloth, with up to ten girls from each of the dormitories squeezed in, chattering at the top of their voices as they took turns ladling out breakfast from a tureen filled with pumpkin mush. A kitchen girl was squeezing through the crowd handing out slabs of fried codfish. Alice looked around and saw not a single seat was empty.
“There’s quite a few of us at number fifty-two, six to each dormitory. I don’t know half of them, but we’re all about the same age. How old are you?”
“I turned twenty last week,” Alice said.
“Ah, I’m an old lady, then. I’m twenty-three.” Lovey nodded toward the table. “Just nudge somebody over, only ten minutes for breakfast,” she said. “Move over, Tilda, make room for Alice.” She gave the placid, plump Tilda a small shove, tipping the chair. Tilda almost fell off.
“You can be so rude,” Tilda said indignantly.
“If your bottom weren’t so big, there’d be room for two,” Lovey murmured.
A sudden sharp voice cut through the chatter. “That’s enough from you, Lovey.” A large, pale woman emerged from the kitchen. Her chin looked permanently dusted with fine, dark hair, and her nose was round as a potato. She planted herself across the kitchen entrance. “We’ve got a new girl this morning, so show your manners.” She nodded in Alice’s direction. “It’s Alice Barrow, right?”
“Your papers say you’ve worked spinning and weaving on hand looms.”
Alice nodded again, quickly. “I’m quite good at it,” she said.
“Don’t get overconfident; running these machines is much harder than handwork. The foreman said to tell you you’re being tried out on the looms today. Tilda will teach you.” The woman’s gaze swept now around the table. “So what’s the most important thing she should know? Who wants to answer?” After a pause, “Don’t all jump up at once, now.”
“Make sure the bobbin doesn’t run out of thread; if it does you have to stop the machine, and that’s money lost,” Tilda said.
“Your money gets docked, too,” Lovey murmured to Alice. “Fewer jingling coppers in the paymaster’s money box.”
“Who is she?” Alice asked, once the woman was out of earshot.
“That’s Mrs. Holloway, the house mistress. She worked the looms until she got too old, so now she keeps busy making a ton of rules. You break them, you are out.”
Almost on cue, Mrs. Holloway turned back and pointed to a cardboard sign hanging next to the fireplace. “There are the rules,” she said. “Read them and heed them. And know this—we’ll have no loose girls at Lowell. Your conduct here at the mill and in town will be watched. And church is mandatory, Saint Anne’s Episcopal.”
“But I’m not religious.”
“Makes no difference,” Mrs. Holloway said.
Lovey’s arm shot up, her eyes bright. “Mrs. Holloway, are you going to tell her about the rule saying she has to tithe every week? A little extra for the church and mill owners out of her pay envelope?”
A nervous, thin giggle spread across the room.
Mrs. Holloway shot Lovey a cross look. “One day you’ll push me too far, Lovey Cornell. Get yourself a biscuit, that’s all for now. Breakfast is over.” As one, the crowd of girls shoved back their chairs and stood, some cramming biscuits into their pockets as quickly as they could.
Alice looked longingly at the warm pumpkin mush, still steaming, but the girls were straightening aprons and lining up to leave the building.
“Here,” hissed Lovey. She threw Alice a biscuit.
Outside, Alice inhaled deeply, glad to be free of the closeness of the boardinghouse. The cold air shocked her fully awake. She looked around. She was in a square lined in brick, a huge clock tower rising grandly to the still-dark sky, hurrying with the others toward a wooden bridge that crossed the Merrimack River. The boardinghouses, eight rows of them built of the same red brick as the square, stood directly across the bridge from the factory. They had tall chimneys, gabled dormers, and precisely spaced windows lined up as snappily as soldiers on review; no hint of the crowded conditions within. Tall pines graced each side of the road leading away from the boardinghouses into Lowell, their branches bare but plentiful, offering promise. Everything offered promise. The road itself beckoned. Alice knew that if they took a right turn, over the next hill, there was a company store and small shops selling sweets and real leather shoes. Beyond that sat the Lowell Bank with the majestic solid marble pillars she had been told about. A real bank that whispered promises for those who saved their money. You had to give it to them first, but she understood how that would work. She couldn’t see all this, not yet, but she knew it was there.
Table of Contents
Praise for THE DARING LADIES OF LOWELL
"Rendered in vivid, authentic period detail, The Daring Ladies of Lowell is a suspenseful, compelling tale of courageous young women fighting for justice—and sometimes their very lives—in the cotton mills of mid-nineteenth century Massachusetts."
—Jennifer Chiaverini, New York Times bestselling author of Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker
“Set during the turbulent days of America’s industrial revolution, The Daring Ladies of Lowell captures the spirit and courage of the young women who dared to work at factory jobs. Kate Alcott draws on the true story of a murdered mill girl for this captivating story of loyalty, friendship, and love—most of all, love.”
Sandra Dallas, New York Times bestselling author of Alice’s Tulips and Fallen Women
“The Daring Ladies of Lowell are as complicated and flawed as any contemporary heroines, and they shine in this gripping 19th century tale about a small group of “factory girls” who refuse to be silenced when one of their own is murdered. Kate Alcott has woven industrial history, small-town politics, and pure invention into a nuanced gem of a novel about friendship, sacrifice, and love that will keep you turning its pages until the very end.”
Amy Brill, author of The Movement of Stars
Praise for THE DRESSMAKER
Historical figures become intricate characters in Alcott’s hands.” —Seattle Post Intelligencer
“Seamlessly stitching fact and fiction together, Alcott creates a hypnotic tale.” —USA Today
“Offers a heroine you can really root for.” —NPR, “All Things Considered”
“From the minute Tess sets foot on the Titanic, this is the kind of novel you simply cannot put down and cannot forget.” —Tatiana de Rosnay, author of Sarah’s Key
Reading Group Guide
THE DARING LADIES OF LOWELL DISCUSSION GUIDE
1. How is the treatment of the “factory girls” different from the way women are treated in today’s work place? How is it similar?
2. Did the descriptions of how much work went into creating simple piece of cotton cloth surprise you?
3. When Alice first meets Lovey, she doesn’t quite know what to make of Lovey’s frankness and her high spirits. What was your initial reaction to Lovey? Do you think she is reckless or a woman ahead of her time?
4. The Daring Ladies of Lowell takes place in 1832, ten years before the landmark decision in Commonwealth v. Hunt held that workers have the right to organize and strike, and more than one hundred years until federal law was passed prohibiting child labor. Why do you think progress has been so slow in protecting working people?
5. Discuss Delia and Ellie’s difficult situation and the many parallels with the challenges working mothers still deal with today: a troubled marriage, battle for custody of a child, and the difficulty working women can have in securing adequate child care.
6. Alice and her co-workers have a grueling schedule: thirteen-hour days, ceaseless physical labor, and only one day a week off. Could you make it through a “factory girl” workweek?
7. Discuss the role respectability plays in the novel, and the consequences of the secrets that are kept to save reputations (as in the case of Jonathan Fiske) and to maintain the status quo (Dr. Stanhope’s knowledge of the poor conditions and health hazards at the mill).
8. Alice forms a bond with a Samuel’s grandmother, who stands apart from the rest of the Fiske family. What does she represent and how has her influence shaped Samuel?
9. What is Alice’s most admirable trait? What is her least admirable trait?
10. What do you think the future holds for Alice and Samuel?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A great slice of history, sweet romance that takes some interesting turns and wonderfully spirited mill girls. The novel moves along quickly but also really conveys what it was like to work the loom
A light historical romance Kate Alcott's second historical novel, The Daring Ladies of Lowell is set in the town of Lowell, Massachusetts during the 1830s. Lowell is one of the East Coast towns that were famous for the cloth mills that populated the area and were infamous for their "sweatshop" conditions. Alice Barrow is a farm girl who travels to Lowell to begin work in the mill. Once she has found a dormitory with an extra space, she settles in and begins her career as one of the "mill girls". There were several things that I enjoyed about this book. First of all, I enjoyed the mix of characters included in the cast of mill girls. Kate Alcott did a good job of including characters whose personalities were as varied as the girls themselves were. Among Alice's friends and dormitory sisters we find the religious, the studious, the goody two shoes, the adventurous, and those that just wanted to have a little fun. Another way that Kate Alcott's portrayal of the mill girls was spot on was in the way that she portrayed the juxtapositions of their lives. Although the living and working conditions are harsh, they are much better than those that most of these girls came from, mostly because for the first time in their lives, they are able to make decisions for themselves, at least on some level. I thought that the way the allure of their lives was contrasted with it's bleak realities was quite well done. Another aspect of this book that worked for me was in the portrayal of the mill owner, Hiram Fiske. Like so many of the men in his position, Hiram was a mix of characteristics. Although he was getting rich off of the backs of the mill girls, at times he was honestly able to convince himself that he was making their lives better. And just when he was about to convince you that he could do the right thing, his greed would rear its ugly head and he would become a man whose only purpose in life was to make his business more profitable than his competitors, no matter who was hurt in the process. Another great plus to this book was the fact that the murder and subsequent trial that were interwoven through the story were based on an actual event. I always love when a historical book uses actual events to tell a fictional story. It not only shows that the author did some research on the subject, but for me it makes the story have more impact. In the case of this story, also, the murder and trial were the perfect devices to illustrate the realities of the lives of the characters. Not only were we able to see how the mill girls would eventually band together for their joint benefit, but using the trial to showcase the thinking of the mill owners at that time was wonderful. What didn't work for me, though, was the romance side of the story. I will be the first to admit that I don't mind a little romance with my history, but in this case, the romance presented just did not ring true. A romance between the mill owner's son and one of the mill girls was just too fanciful for me and took away from the realistic feeling of the rest of the book. I would have found it much less distracting if the romance would have developed between Alice and the town doctor, or someone who lived in Lowell, but wasn't a mill worker. In fact, I would much rather have had more of the story about the mill girls, their lives, and their working conditions. Alternately, I would have been happier if more of the story would have been centered on the mill owners and their justifications for their behavior, or about the murder and trial. Having read a few other books that were similar in character to this, I found the underlying story was good, but could have gone farther. However, I would still recommend this book for those who are interested in reading about the women and girls who worked in the mills, especially if you like a bit of romance with your history. Thanks to the Doubleday for making a copy of this book available through Edelweiss in exchange for my review.
After reading the Dressmaker and thoroughly enjoying that book I wanted to read the authors second book. I enjoy historical fiction and strong female characters. Along with friendships, loyalty, murder, love and loss tied in this book had all the components of a great summer read!
Loved it. If you've read her other book, The Seamstress, you'll absolutely die for this one. It's a quick read just because it's so good not because it's not deep. Great historical fiction novel.
The Daring Ladies of Lowell Kate Alcott presents a moving and informative historical novel about the women who worked in the cotton mills of Lowell Massachusetts in the 1800s. She doesn’t mince words about some of the inhumane working conditions, such as ventilation so poor that the ladies sometimes breathed in so much cotton that they would literally vomit cotton balls. But she presents a balanced view, by also illustrating the positive aspects of their lives - such as more independence than most other females of their era. Some of the characters were real, and a tragedy she describes, was based on a true story. In fact, everything I read in this book lines up with the facts as I learned them in college some years ago.
I am from Lowell and expected sometging more sophisticated than this love story, There was no meat ,no research done, same old same old.
Loved this book! Alcott takes an historical event/situation and created a fictional story around it. This book centers around the girls who worked in the Lowell Mills and follows the shift from awe at the city and job opportunity through the emerging struggles of labor laws. This is combined with a murder trial and the class division between a mill girl and the owners. I had to force myself to put it down so that I wouldn't read it all in the first sitting. I highly recommend this and her other book, The Dressmaker.
An easy read, easy to put down, easy to pick back up.
I enjoy books that are both a mix of fiction and historical. This book was well written with a good insight to the textile mills of that day and what it took to run them.
I loved this story. Historically interesting with mystery and romance to boot!
I really enjoyed her book The Dressmaker. This book has the history of the cotton mills where young women worked along with a murder mystery and the trial that ensued. History along with fiction.
Though I enjoyed the book, I think I prefered Ms. Alcott's other book more. There were times when the book dragged. If you like to read about strong women in history, I would suggest you read this book. The story centers on a group of women who worked in the factories during the 18th century. some of the story is based on a true incident, the death of a young woman.
Very good read. I love stories about strong females and this was one.
Difficult book to get into, and sometimes confusing. No clue who Harry was until the end at which time I went back and retread each Harry chapter. At that point the pieces fell into place. Difficult, but worth the read...