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Synopsis|Excerpt|Table of Contents|Reader Reviews

Synopsis

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.”  The hours are long and the conditions are bad, but Alice soon finds a true friend in Lovey Cornell, a saucy, strong-willed girl who is outspoken about the dangers they face in the factories . . . and about Alice opening her heart to a blossoming relationship with Samuel Fiske, the handsome and sympathetic son of the mill’s owner.
 
But when Lovey is found dead under suspicious circumstances, a sensational trial brings the workers’ unrest to a boiling point, leaving Alice is torn between finding justice for her friend and her growing passion for the man with whom she had no business falling in love. 
 

Excerpt

Chapter One

Lowell, Massachusetts

March 1832

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?”

Alice nodded.

“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 

Table of Contents

"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
 
 
Kate Alcott

About Kate Alcott

Kate Alcott - The Daring Ladies of Lowell

Photo © Marianna Koval

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.

Praise

Praise

“A suspenseful, compelling tale of courageous young women fighting for justice.” —Jennifer Chiaverini, author of Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker
  
“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.” —The New York Times Book Review
  
“Offers up a compelling slice of both feminist and Industrial Age history.” —Christian Science Monitor
 
“Both inspiring and thought-provoking…. Will keep the reader captivated for hours.” —The Free-Lance Star (Fredericksburg, VA)

“Riveting. . . . In this book, and in real life, there’s no story—or change—if people don’t push the boundaries of what is acceptable, or give voice to uncomfortable truths.” —Huffington Post

“Alcott draws from dramatic events indelibly etched in history and offers a fresh perspective. . . . Alcott’s work will attract historical romance fans who will be entertained by the antics of the daring ladies who leave everything they know and embrace less-than-ideal conditions to gain their freedom.” —Library Journal (starred review)

“The carefully detailed life in the Massachusetts cotton mills gives Alcott’s latest a ring of authenticity. Add to this well-drawn characters, a sensational trial, a forbidden romance and a young woman’s struggle for independence and you have a compelling read. Alcott is a splendid storyteller who knows exactly how to capture reader attention with a perfect combination of history and romance.” —The Romantic Times

“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, author of Alice’s Tulips

“An engrossing narrative with a love story at its core.” —Booklist

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. . . . 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  

“Will illuminate and satisfy.” —Publishers Weekly

Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions

About the Book

This guide is intended to enhance your discussion of Kate Alcott's The Daring Ladies of Lowell.

About the Guide

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.

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.

Discussion Guides

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?


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