Today, when people think of East Bay Street's recently renovated Cigar Factory, a stylish brick building may come to mind. For 21st century denizens, the Cigar Factory evokes images of an airy cedar room, a tony location for office spaces, and a plate of tuna crudite at Mercantile's long lunch bar. In 1917, though, the Cigar Factory was none of those things. It was just a cigar factory.
Michele Moore's new novel, The Cigar Factory: A Novel of Charleston, pulls the curtain back on a history that is often overlooked — that of working class Charleston in the early 20th century. The story spans decades, starting in 1917 and ending just after World War II.
"My dad was raised by his great aunt, who worked at the Cigar Factory. She worked there many years and my dad's cousins would say, 'You never said anything bad about the factory in front of her," laughs Moore, whose father was raised on the Eastside. It was this family history that drew Moore to the Cigar Factory, although she admits, "I'm surprised that it took me as long as it did to write about the subject. I grew up with that history and I took it for granted."
While Moore's family history inspired the novel, it was a deep dive into research and books like Once a Cigar Maker and Sisterhood Denied that truly gave Moore a look inside the lives of 20th century female factory workers. In Sisterhood especially, Moore saw the basis for what would later become the main theme of her novel: strong women overcoming racial divisions. "Sisterhood is about the cigarette industry. Black and white woman worked in the same factories but were kept separate. There was no sisterhood because of segregation," she says.
So, for her novel, Moore created two families, one black and one white, whose lives depended on Cigar Factory work.
The Cigar Factory begins in 1917 with Cassie McGonegal and her niece, Brigid, headed to work at the factory. The Ravenels, an African-American family, are introduced soon after, when husband Joe enlists in the army, leaving his wife Meliah Amey and their newborn son at home, forcing Meliah Amey to begin working at the factory to support her family.
At the time, the Cigar Factory gig was one of the best in town as far as pay. As Brigid says, "Why should I do office work for faw-ive dollars a week when I can get 10 mek'n cigars?" Working conditions, though, were rough, with women (who made up about 60 percent of the workforce) on their feet for upwards of eight hours a day, rolling cigars, inspecting tobacco leaves, and packing cigars into boxes.
Moore captures the essence of the factory through an incredible attention to detail, along with a meticulous use of dialect. Readers may find themselves mentally exhausted after only several pages, but a glossary in the front of the book helps. In a note in the beginning of the novel Moore writes, "Dialect is portrayed in snippets — a single word, a random phrase, an occasional paragraph, particularly when a new character is introduced or during an emotional outburst: auditory navigational aids, if you will, bell buoys placed every so often as channel markers within the Gullah-Geechee/Charleston English spectrum."
Moore admits that her use of dialect was a risky move, saying, "I hope it finds an audience that's receptive." She spent hours interviewing relatives and family friends who lived in 1920s and '30s Charleston, and she quickly realized that she couldn't ignore their strong accents. "I saw similar communication patterns between my working class family and African Americans. There was a strong West African influence."
Through the influx of wealthier white people and people from outside of Charleston, especially following WWII, the peninsula's strong accent became diluted over the years. Moore tries to recreate it in The Cigar Factory, not just for her black and Gullah/Geechee characters, but for her white characters as well. "I committed to it. Authors will only have African Americans speak in dialect, but white people spoke that way too," she says.
The late Pat Conroy, editor at large of Story River Books, Cigar Factory's publisher, writes in the book's foreword, "It is a desperate city of Charleston that Michele Moore captures, but one that is both on the move and on the rise. It is a Charleston unmapped in fiction, now Michele's territory alone."
Racial tensions, class divisions, and questions of gender equality ring true to many 21st century readers. In a moment in 1929 Cassie McGonegal witnesses a conversation not dissimilar from one Charlestonians may have today: "Cassie had nearly busted a seam at the sight of John Grace talking about unity while standing next to his archenemy, Tom Stoney, and beside him, some dried up Confederate colonel. But there he was, smiling as if among close friends, talking about the strength of steel and promises of prosperity."
The novel builds up to the unionizing of work forces and later, the Civil Rights movement. The story is ambitious in its scope, but grounded in the small and real stories of factory workers, it manages to convey a sense of both the personal lives of two families and the larger historical implications of their efforts to overcome racial and class divisions. It's a big task to take on, but that's kind of why Moore wrote the book in the first place.
"There's a quote I like," she says. "'If you're not sacred of something, then you're not writing something important.'"