The Cigar Factory

Written by Michele Moore
Review by B. J. Sedlock

I’ve never been to Charleston, South Carolina, but this book brought the place alive for me.  It presents a rich atmosphere, allowing readers to experience the sights and smells of the historic city.

The story follows two cigar factory-worker families, starting in 1917. Cassie McGonegal and her niece Brigid work in the upstairs, where whites hand-roll cigars. Meliah Amey Ravenel works in the basement stemming the tobacco leaves, for much less than the white workers make, but it’s the best-paying job an African American woman can get. Her husband, Joe, is part of the famed “Mosquito Fleet” of fishing boats, his catch providing a large part of the food on the family table.

Factory conditions are dismal: all workers come out of the factory smelling strongly of ammonia, and everyone breathes tobacco dust, which especially affects Brigid. The African American women workers’ restroom has no door to protect their privacy, and harassment is rampant. The pace at which the employees are expected to work is extremely taxing.  As cigar-making machines are eventually introduced, the work pacing only gets worse. There is talk of forming a union, but it’s not until World War II that the workers attempt to stand up to the factory owners.

Moore provides a glossary of the local dialect, such as “dayclean” for sunrise, or “true-mouth” describing someone who won’t lie. I only had to do a little flipping back and forth to the glossary: the context helped. I learned about the Southern working class, race relations in Charleston, and got a new appreciation of factory conditions that 20th-century unions tried to combat. The plot does not have a big, exciting climax, but the reader will care about the characters and feel satisfied with the denouement. It’s among the best historical fiction I’ve read in a long while.