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  • Writer's pictureMj Pettengill

Why Fall River?

Updated: Apr 8, 2019

The Angels' Lament: Why Fall River? Throughout the process of my ongoing research, I have learned that my passion lies in the unveiling of that which has been consistently hidden, and in some cases, banned from conventional sources. Challenge motivates me. The less material available on the surface, the more determined I am to dig.

I chose Fall River, located in the southeastern part of the state, because, between 1820 and 1840, information pertaining to the mills is abundant. However, there is little mention of what transpired a few decades later in Fall River.

In the 1870s, Fall River became the second largest producer of cotton cloth in the world. Manchester, England was number one. During this time, along with the rapid increase of wealth for the few families that dominated the industry, a massive surge of immigration occurred, changing and reshaping the labor force, and altering the roles of men, women, and children for generations to come.

Insight brings illumination. The most profound narratives are tucked away in rare books— considered controversial in their time—yellowed newspaper articles, diaries, and letters. This extraordinary information consistently pulls me deeper into the complex structuring of our social history while broadening the spectrum of varied strands available to weave into the fabric of who we are today.

My initial research focused on the torment and adversity of women in the workplace while crammed into filthy tenements, rising up to the meet the challenges of daily life. During my analysis, a natural shift occurred, bringing my attention to the children, work conditions, general management, and labor practices.

It was my examination of the power struggles within the political, economic, and cultural development that sparked a desire to acknowledge the lives of immigrants. It is impossible to focus on one group and not the others. As divided as they appeared to be, they were often bound by their afflictions. Setting aside their differences, they came together to stand up for their rights. They were agents of change. This civil unrest has been a work in progress now for almost two centuries. Looking back, it may appear as if much has changed. However, it is wise for us to examine their efforts through a more transparent lens and refocus.

Seeking that which never existed, workers traveled to mill cities from lands across the sea, neighboring farming communities, and Canada. They became victims of social and moral collapse due to public neglect, incalculable abuse, and corporate greed, unknowingly paving the way for the future.

With empty promises of a prosperous life, wealthy factory owners lured immigrants to America, where they suffered cruel punishment, and endured hard labor while under life-threatening conditions. In an effort to adapt to their new world, the lives of thousands of men, women, and children disintegrated. With hunger and disease rampant, their wretched circumstances persisted, seemingly without end.

Within this high-charged environment was an ever-present undercurrent—conflict between gender, race, ethnicity, social class, and religion. All of this existed in the face of oppressive paternalism, the growth of corporate power, and textile capitalism.

As with Nellie in Etched in Granite, the narrative spans generations, reaching back to the shores of Ireland during the Great Hunger—mass starvation and exile— a catastrophic historical event, systematically deemphasized and misunderstood. The harrowing world left behind followed these immigrants as they boarded coffin ships, embarking on a perilous transatlantic voyage, to a world that did anything but embrace them.


The characters are fictitious, intended to bring voice to actual historical events.

Sarah makes her way down to the textile mills, bringing us into a spinner’s world while living in filth, in a cramped tenement unfit for humans. Her sheltered background could have been a fatal weakness. Her determination to stand firm contains many valuable lessons.

August Wood shares his experiences as a street kid in New York City, in and out of the Children’s Asylum, and on a westbound Orphan Train.

Bess Adams, pianist extraordinaire, daughter of an influential corporate lawyer, and surrounded by servants, seems to have it all.

My background as a cornetist and Civil War Music Historian is a significant resource. The element of music propels the story, forging a strong bond between the characters.

I am grateful for the courage required to enter into these dark places, providing the opportunity to discover what once was; for the fortitude necessary to stay with it, when the somber truth threatens to overwhelm; and for knowing when to walk away, allowing information to seep in so that my work is effective. Mj Pettengill, Author Etched in Granite Historical Fiction Series The Angels' Lament - Book Two Book Three Coming Soon (Image: Public Domain)


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