As a resident of the greater Boston area, and a fan of both witches and labor history, I nearly jumped out of my skin with anticipation when I saw The Factory Witches of Lowell, by C.S. Malerich. A novella about witches creating a union at the historical fabric mills in Lowell, just a short drive from where I live? Yes, please! The book reads like a fable about the disenfranchised reclaiming their power.
When the book starts, the factories at Lowell have raised the workers’ rent and increased their hours one too many times. Judith Whittier has worked in mills before, and knows how easily a strike can crumble when the workers lose heart, and Hannah Pickering has the Sight, and an affinity for magic. Along with their landlady, Mrs. Hansen, and the rest of the girls of their boarding house, they cast a spell to keep any of them from betraying the strike until their demands are met.
This is the story of a movement, and not of individual characters. The story explores themes like freedom, ownership, and the injustice of inequality, whether between men and women, masters and slaves, or bosses and workers. Judith, Hannah, Mrs. Hansen, and the rest serve to humanize those heady themes, to give them faces and personalities, attachments and affections.
Nobody familiar with labor history will find anything is this book particularly surprising. Malerich doesn’t need to to add heightened stakes or danger – the very real threats of economic ruin, retaliation from the mill, and all of the risks inherent to forming a union and striking are more than enough. That grounding in reality lends weight and substance to the bravery of these girls, and of every worker who has ever stood up and demanded fair treatment.
The magic is subtle. It mainly serves as a vehicle for the social messaging, while also drawing on the tradition of magic serving as a last resort for the powerless and disenfranchised. It feels strange to describe magic as realistic, but that’s how the witchcraft feels in this book. It is well-grounded, nicely balanced, and draws on historical beliefs.
I particularly appreciated the ending. Success is not final, and the girls know that they will have to be prepared for next time. There is no illusion that those in power will share willingly. It’s maybe not the most optimistic take on human nature, but it suits the narrative
This historical nugget is a must-read for anyone who enjoys either labor or Boston history, or subtle witchcraft. It’s a hopeful read, and a relaxing hymn to our power to change the world for the better, if we only stand firm.