Recommended reading, or How I wrote a labor fantasy

One of the joys of fiction is making certain concepts and histories accessible to new audiences. With the release of The Factory Witches of Lowell, the time is ripe to share some of my essential nonfiction sources for information and inspiration.

If the story of Judith and Hannah sparks your imagination, if you wonder where it came from, if you’re writing your own strike+magic story, may I recommend…

Loom and Spindle, or Life Among the Early Mill Girls by Harriet Hanson Robinson

Robinson’s memoir of her years working as a mill operative is a window into the daily experience and inner lives of workers in 19th-century Lowell. The independent spirit of Robinson and her coworkers, their warmth and camaraderie, bleeds through every page. She describes her own childhood and youth, and includes character sketches of her peers that were invaluable in creating my fictional girls. Also a great source for writing style and language!

The Belles of New England : The Women of the Textile Mills and the Families Whose Wealth They Wove by William Moran

Excellent secondary source for the history of women workers in Lowell and the surrounding towns, with an eye to both the liberation and oppression inherent in these new opportunities for employment.

Charity and Sylvia : A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America
by Rachel Hope Cleves

The most romantic nonfiction book I have ever read.

Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake met, fell in love, and set up house in Weymouth, Vermont, in 1807. For forty years, they lived as a couple, recognized and accepted by their neighbors. Though neither worked in a mill town like Lowell, their life together is a testament to the historical possibility of a Judith-and-Hannah-ship, and a refreshing reminder that LGBTQ individuals have found ways to survive and thrive in every era. Also a go-to for period details and language.

The Half Has Never Been Told : Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist

The story of Judith, Hannah, and their comrades sits within the context of transatlantic slavery. It’s vital not only to tell their chapter, but to face head-on the fact that the cotton which the mill girls wove each day started in the hands of kidnapped Africans. The Half Has Never Been Told puts the narratives of enslaved people front and center, supported by macro-economic analysis to show not only how New England factory towns and Walls Street owe their existence to southern slavery, but the full horror of economic powers transforming human beings into mere figures on a balance sheet.

Baptist’s language is beautifully expressive, and my conception of Hannah’s Sight owes a great deal to him, particularly in his “Breath” section, which puts the term “genius” in context; and the description of slave auctions, which appear in Hannah’s flashback in Chapter 2 of Factory Witches.

Caliban and the Witch : Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation
by Silvia Federici

In the economic history of the world, the division of the population into Owners and Workers didn’t just happen, it took generations of terrorizing semi-autonomous communities. Federici looks into the particular role European witch hunts played in destroying peasant resistance, which set the stage for the rise of capitalism throughout the world — including in little witch-phobic Massachusetts. Her fellow historian Peter Linebaugh sums it up:

Federici shows that the birth of the proletariat required a war against women, inaugurating a new sexual pact and a new patriarchal era: the patriarchy of the wage. Firmly rooted in the history of the persecution of the witches and the disciplining of the body, her arguments explain why the subjugation of women was as crucial for the formation of the world proletariat as the enclosures of the land, the conquest and colonization of the ‘New World,’ and the slave trade.

Wage Labour and Capital / Value, Price and Profit by Karl Marx

Like the mill girls, workers throughout the 19th century recognized that it was their labor power which built the fortunes of their employers. Marx crystallized this recognition in the Labor Theory of Value — e.g., it was the time, energy, and skill of the mill operatives that made the fabric they wove more valuable than the bales of cotton that arrived in Lowell.

While Marx’s fullest analysis wouldn’t come until his masterwork Capital, these two pamphlets introduce the basics of his thought, along with showing that wages aren’t fixed: workers organized together can win higher wages and benefits — in essence winning back (some of) the value they give to the company, which is mythologized in Factory Witches as the “genius” which Hannah can See.

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