Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Daughter of the Loom: New England in the Industrial Age

Tracie Peterson and Judith Miller’s new series, Bells of Lowell, begins with Daughter of the Loom, set in 1828 Massachusetts. Lilly Armbruster has lived in East Chesholm, which has recently been renamed Lowell and turned into a textile factory town. She misses the countryside, and blames the mills for taking away her father and all she once had. Left with nothing, Lilly takes a job working at the mill and shares a small boardinghouse room with 8 other girls. Yet in her heart, Lilly purposes to sabotage the mills, carrying out God’s vengeance to remove the industrialists.

Having recently visited the northeast and the early historic mills (Slater Mill, in Northern Rhode Island), I enjoyed the regional and historic background of this novel, with its regional references to Pawtucket and the rivers that powered the region (southern Massachusetts and northern Rhode Island) into the Industrial Age. Daughter of the Loom takes place some years after the first mill was established in 1790; the technology has been developed and now is expanding into areas such as Lowell. Kirk Boott, who started up the mill in this story, appears as one of the minor characters, and we experience this historical figure as seen by Lilly’s old beau, Matthew Cheever.

Daughter of the Loom mentions, at least superficially, some of the problems of the time—cheap labor from foreigners (such as the Irish), long working hours, the heat and humidity of mills that were kept closed with no windows opened, child labor, and sexual harassment of the young women. The descriptions are relatively mild, though, and lack great details of what that life must have been like. Yet we do see both sides; in spite of worker exploitation and literal sweatshops, many among the common people eagerly embraced change and the new economic opportunities the mills brought. Women could find work to help their poor families, and the paycheck seemed more reliable than uncertain farm crops. The town also provided greater social interaction, including annual dance balls eagerly anticipated by the mill girls.

The story moves slowly at times, and the minor characters are not well developed. Much of the time, Lilly is embittered and cynical, not always the easiest person to like. Yet perhaps because of these qualities, the story is more believable, with characters behaving within the constraints of 1828 – in contrast to some of Peterson’s previous series with great page-turning action and events that really would not have happened. Daughter of the Loom serves well as a stand-alone novel, with most of the plot threads resolved by the book’s end. The book is also a great introduction for the future installments, each of which focuses on different main characters -- not yet introduced at this time – and their experiences in the New England Industrial Revolution.