Discover more from Activist Explorer Newsletter, by Juliana Barnet
FFA Friday: The Factory Witches of Lowell
A good day to feature the novella The Factory Witches of Lowell, by C. S. Malerich, a fictional look at the historic 1836 strike by the women who ran the looms in the factories of Lowell, Massachusetts.
The novella undertakes what I feel we need much more of: stories with organizers for justice at the center. Although witchcraft appears as a central tool of organizing in the story, hardly a realistic situation, the setup gives the author the chance to tell a story that is both fanciful and real, focused on a historical—and historic—struggle for workers’ and women’s rights in the textile mills of New England.
The characters of this novella are factory workers—nearly all of them young girls—who are striking for better working conditions and pay. Girls are getting sick from breathing cotton dust, working from dawn to dark. The last straw is an increase in rent, a direct order from their bosses, who control the boarding houses the girls live in. The company’s power was so complete they could even pressure the boarding house matrons to throw the strikers out in the street.
Malerich’s story paints a vivid picture of the daily lives of the girls, both as workers and as strikers. Virtually all waking hours were spent at their looms in the factories, the rest of the time under the vigilance of the matrons at the boarding houses. The work contract each young woman signed even stipulated their attendance at church every Sunday.
When I seek out fiction centering activists and social movements I look for depiction not only of injustice but of people thinking about and organizing to overcome it, as we see in The Factory Witches of Lowell, as the girls endeavor to sustain and win their strike.
We don’t need to believe witchcraft will actually defeat corporations and ensure solidarity in order to appreciate a story about organizing, even one woven with fantasy.
Characters tackling real situations, thinking and acting collectively, framed in a convincing setting with an intriguing plot, give readers the opportunity to enter into the story at a level rarely possible with nonfiction, and to imagine themselves in the shoes of the young characters fighting for justice.
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