Ella is a newlywed, living and working in Saint Paul, MN in 1915. She had her husband work at a shirtwaist factory that mass-produces women’s work blouses. Connor works as a cutter and Ella is part of the sewing-line brigade. A cutter stacks multiple layers of linen, places the pattern piece on top and then uses a knife to slice through the layers. The runners (usually young boys) distribute the pieces to the girls on the sewing line. In The Cutter’s Widow, Connor slashes his finger and dies from sepsis making Ella an 18-year old widow. She is alone as her family members are either deceased or scattered across the country. As she tries to figure out how to provide Connor with a proper burial, she discovers he has spent their savings, most likely on beers for his mates or gambling. Her neighbor is helpful, but Ella is on her own to support herself.
Grief becomes her terrible companion. She is left with his just his collection of knives and wool coat. There are no photos or love letters. She drinks homemade wine to help her sleep but is reluctant to return to the bed where he died. She worries that all her memories of Connor will wear out with use. She doesn’t always make sound decisions but she constantly talks to her dead husband in her head and begs for help. She’s sometimes angry with him for leaving her to struggle alone and realizes all of her problems are a result of his death. She wonders if he was showing off with the knives when he was cut. Once as she walks across a bridge, she thinks of joining him. Her new circumstances lead her to become a baby-broker and she naively partners with a known pickpocket to help run the business. Caring for the infants that need homes both fill her with love but also makes her long for the babies she would never bear with Connor—another layer of loss.
Grief is heavy. She is fatigued all the time. Her dreams are often confusing and vivid.
And yet life demands that she move forward. People expect a widow to be better, to get on with things. A character in the novel tells she will find love again and another advises her to take lover. Ella is horrified and replies, “He’s only been gone for three months!” The character tells her that Connor will still be dead the next day and the day after that.
The widow does go on, but she is forever changed by this loss and sometimes buckles under the heavy load of sadness, but ultimately learns to carry it.
There is no other choice.