It’s really hard to avoid reading about the conditions that a lot of people are working under today. Before the pandemic it was already questionable, especially with the rise of the gig economy. But the pandemic, particularly in the United States, has brought a lot of those issues into sharp detail. So when I heard of a book about a group of women banding together to strike in the nineteenth century using magic, I was instantly sold. I know it’s not exactly a solution to our current predicaments (I wish it was), but because stories about solidarity are so rare, it’s important to read stories that focus on actually banding together. It’s a nice and (in my opinion) important break from the single good guy/girl protagonist who “wins” through sheer willpower. The Factory Witches of Lowell, by C.S. Malerich, is a book about such solidarity that scratches the surface of labor history in the Northeastern United States. It serves as an interesting exploration of these ideas but falls short in delivering a solid story.
Our story follows the exploits of women workers in the milltown of Lowell, Massachusetts, adding a fantastical flair to real life events of 1836. The two main characters are Judith, the ringleader of the strike, and Hannah, one who still practices the forgotten art of witchcraft. There is a budding romance between the two as they navigate the strike, facing opposition from management and helping to keep the other women involved. Magic isn’t a silver bullet in their schemes, so while Hannah practices, she still has to work to find the right spells to counteract the papercraft of capital. How can a young group of women succeed, when there have been several attempts before them? Will the magic be enough?
Promisingly, the book opens in media res, with the women performing magic during a strike planning session. There is a sense of wonder that fills the pages; the reader is introduced to the characters as they submit their hair to the collective spell. This spell would in essence form a magical bond of solidarity, preventing women from crossing the picket line at the promise of individual benefit from management. What I particularly enjoyed about the magic in Witches is how cleverly Malerich interweaved it into the class politics and machinations of capitalism. Setting Hannah up as someone who understood the basic tenets, but had to use her foundations to analyze and build new spells was really fun, and also fairly informative from a material analysis perspective (if you’re into that sort of thing).
Beyond the magic, however, I had a hard time connecting with the story, and I think that is mostly due to its length. Witches relies a lot on the historical aspect as a given, and people’s common understanding that working conditions in the nineteenth century were awful and extremely exploitative. There are tidbits here and there about the specifics of working conditions such as the kiss of death (in which women had to inhale the string through loops, thus inhaling the linens and dust, developing coughs), but I never got a general sense of their lives. While I understand that there probably was not much of a life outside of work in these conditions, I barely got a sense of who the women wanted to be outside work, or if they even saw the work as important. It was a fairly large cast of characters, centered around two particular women, but overall most of the characters barely had any defining traits even though they were often talked about in reverent and defining ways. I get that there is a very fine line to walk before you stray into anachronism, or modern progressive ideals showing up in historical fiction, but I had a hard time caring about the strike beyond my already pro-labor power tendencies. I’m not saying this had to be a “teachable moment” — it is fiction and deserves to be fun, I just mean that purely from a story standpoint I did not buy in. I think I expected historical fiction with a charming fantasy twist, but I just got the charming fantasy twist with historical labor trivia thrown in.
In the end it’s hard to say how much of this could be made more compelling with length, because I do think that’s my major complaint with the book. Witches is 120 pages, and so much is crammed into it. Everything moves so fast, there’s no time to appreciate the characters or their struggles. The texture of their lives feels missing, and while there are plenty of dissections of the book from a political perspective that are enlightening (if you are interested, I definitely recommend looking into them because there is a lot to learn about), I had trouble with it as a story. I wish it was a little less subtle, and had more “oomph” to the narrative. I still liked it and loved the way Malerich used magic in a grounded way to highlight how capitalism as a system functions. However, I wanted more from it, and maybe that’s a personal problem.
Rating: Factory Witches of Lowell – 6.0/10