I love the Lizzie Borden legend as much as any loyal and true Fall River native, but a historical novel set in my hometown in a different era is an unexpected pleasure. Jotham Burrello’s Spindle City spans the first quarter of the twentieth century, the heyday of Fall River’s textiles boom (and foreshadows its inevitable bust).
Burrello has created a satisfyingly complex world, rich in historical detail. Spindle City opens with Fall River’s sprawling Cotton Centennial celebration in 1911, which culminated in a visit from President Taft. There are also scenes set in a Fall River Line stateroom, at a summer dance at Sandy Beach Pavilion, of Portuguese immigrants digging for quahogs in the Westport River, and of “Frenchies” suffering in the Flint district’s slums. (A clever touch—historical or fabricated?—is a throwaway mention of a Flint tavern called Lizzie’s Axe.)
We meet a Dickensian collection of Fall Riverites, from wealthy mill owners to union organizers to exhausted workers, and we get caught up in the fates of engaging characters such as Helen Sheehan, a shoplifting Irish tomboy, and João, a stalwart Portuguese farmer—and repellent ones, such as sexual predator Hollister Bartlett. But the plot pivots around Joseph Bartlett (Hollister’s father), who manages the Cleveland Mill, one of many in the city where “four million spindles hum.”
Like an inverted George Bailey of It’s a Wonderful Life, Joseph has been thwarted in his young man’s dream of running a prosperous farm; instead, he’s followed his father into mill management, married a society girl, bought a fancy house in the Highlands, and taken on the trappings of a Fall River success story. There’s tension between Joseph and the Manufacturers’ Association because he’s tried to avoid the abusively low wages and enforced “vacations” for strikers that are standard operating procedure at most of the mills. There are tensions, actually, in almost every aspect of Joseph’s life, and secrets to be closely guarded.
If Joseph’s story is the “weft” of Spindle City, then Fall River itself is the “warp,” the stationary threads on the loom, and obviously a significant inspiration for Burrello:
Joseph walked down Columbia Street, through the smell of chowder and galvanized pork . . . It was a foggy night, and balls of sticky light encased the streetlamps. He kept off the trolley route, and spoke to no one, not even the newsies who stuck late editions in his face on every corner. Near the Pocasset mill, he turned on Anawan Street and followed the thundering roar to the falls, where the Quequechan River tumbled four stories over granite rock into Mount Hope Bay. Out in the bay, one of the floating palaces of the Fall River Line blew its whistle as it neared the wharf. Joseph imagined the mill agents sipping brandy in their staterooms as the second-class dreamers, fresh from Ellis Island, stood along the starboard railing, staring wide-eyed at the city on a hill. Below, in the hold, sat the five-hundred-pound cotton bales they would spin into cloth.
Inevitably, some of my appreciation for Spindle City springs from its summoning up of my hometown’s past—a past both glitzier and grimier than the city I grew up in. Beyond that, however, Spindle City is well-written, memorable historical fiction, and I’d recommend it to anyone who’s interested in America’s industrial past and the people who made it possible.