In the 1830s, Lowell, Mass., was the city of tomorrow, the shining spearhead of the Industrial Revolution -- a city bright, new and hopeful, a planned community dedicated to the textile industry and organized according to the highest ideals of Yankee enterprise. The city was once of the wonders of the world, visited by such celebrities as Davy Crockett, Charles Dickens, even President Andrew Jackson, and universally praised for its enlightened management.
Lowell was then populated mostly by unmarried women (an unhappy surplus in New England of the period) who worked in the mills 12 to 14 hours per day, living under strict regulation in company-owned boarding houses which cost them $1.25 per week. If they worked hard and avoided illness or accident (difficult under their working conditions), they could hope eventually to rise to positions where they might earn more than $2 per week beyond that basic living expense.
This is the world into which Nancy Zaroulis plunges her heroine, Sabra Palfrey, at the beginning of "Call the Darkness Light." It is a world of harsh realities under a genteel facade.
In the evening, the young ladies sing around the piano in their boarding-house parlors, attend lectures at the Lyceum, visit the library or stroll through the downtown shops -- carefully watching their pennies, for many are helping to support their parents, saving up for a dowry or putting a brother through college.
But at work, lung disease lurks in the lint-filled air, and the primitive machines can mangle an unwary worker -- making the plant manager grumble about lost time if the machines have to be stopped to pull a victim out of their clutches. Workers who circulate a petition for a 10-hour day are dismissed in disgrace and blacklisted so that they cannot find work elsewhere.
The story of how Sabra fell into this situation and struggled to escape it is told against a broadly sketched background of American history in the years from 1839 to the beginning of the Civil War. It is an eventful, colorful period, and although she is a curiously passive heroine for a novel with strong feminist over tones, Sabra manages at one point or another to come into contact with nearly all the developments of the time.
Besides the Industrial Revolution, these include the abolitionist movement the Underground Railway, the beginning of Utopian communes based on transcendentalist ideas, the surge of immigration and the rise of Know-Nothingism, the California gold rush, the first stirrings of the women's movement, the rise of various religious sects (Millerites, Mormons and Shakers), the work of Florence Nightingale and the development of photography. No wonder the book takes more than a quarter of a million words and Sabra is dragged, willy-nilly, through so many different life styles.
Sabra has no need to be a part of history, as she explains patiently after many misadventures to an abolitionist who proposes to marry her: "She would not involve herself with causes, or movements, or schemes to better the world. That was work for others to do . . . She asked only to live quietly, to have food and shelter and good health. The world would go on, regardless; she wanted no part in trying to change it."
But a part of history, nonetheless, she is -- or at least a close spectator, with people all around her fighting for Irish independence, or joining the Millerites and waiting for the end of the world or getting caught in a collapsing textile mill and in general acting like the kind of people you see in history texts.
On the whole, it is fortunate for the novel that they are present and act this way. Without them, the story of Sabra's slow drifting from one home to another, her various occupations, her brief marriage and the birth and growth of her daughter are the slow-moving stuff of daytime television. What makes the book interesting is the historical background crammed into it.
Zaroulis has apparently recognized this, since she moves Sabra around like a puppet from one situation to another chiefly for the purpose of examining a new background. Her examination is skilled and, in most cases, rather thorough. Those who want to know what it was like in New England between 1839 and 1861 will find in "Call the Darkness Light" a relatively painless though somewhat wordy way to find out. If only there were not the occasional distraction of Sabra Palfrey's life and misadventures, it would all be quite interesting.