“My relatives, like a lot of people, came to Pittsburgh from Ireland. If you were men, you worked in the mills. If you were a woman, you maybe became a domestic (servant).”

Benedict’s relatives saw education as a way to improve their children’s futures, so they looked for it in one of the only places it was available.

“A lot of them lived in and around Oakland,” she explains. “And so they were some of the first people to really utilize the free programming and the books available at the Carnegie Library in Oakland.”

“I know there’s a lot of negative stuff around Andrew Carnegie but they always talked about Carnegie and the library so reverentially. I became really curious about his life and how this man who in some ways was really reviled, and in other ways had done such magnificent things. I went deep into the research about Andrew Carnegie and how he became really a tremendous philanthropist and creator of the free library system that we use today.”

Researching Carnegie, she didn’t find anyone in his orbit — in Pittsburgh’s burgeoning high society, or in the lower ranks — who had a deep enough connection for a story. So she created her own character, a woman who was very bright but uneducated, like her ancestors, and who worked as a domestic in one of the big houses like her family did. “What if she inspired him?” Benedict asks.

As a fiction writer, you’ve got a certain amount of freedom that historians lack.

“There are so many immigrant women who are so important to the foundation of our country, and their stories have never been told. Because if anyone’s lost the history, it’s the poor, the illiterate, the people who worked in the menial jobs like my ancestors did,” Benedict says.

Creating this inspiring fictional character was her way of honoring them.

“I used a lot of original source material about immigrants and female domestics at that time, so it was really a like a walk down the ancestral lane of my own family’s experiences,” says Benedict.

Benedict’s fans, of course, wonder which women she’ll write about next.

“I’m always collecting these women, you know,” she says. “I have this long list of them and I kind of turn to them from time to time as I’m thinking about my next book.”

Rosalind Franklin was suggested by a friend — an ER doctor who was a first responder on 9/11 — who was reading a nonfiction book about genetics, which described Franklin’s work in great detail.

“She called me right after and she goes, ‘Oh my god — you have to write about Rosalind Franklin,’” says Benedict. “This happens a lot! Like people — my friends and family obviously, and readers — know what my mission is, and so they’re out there finding women for me to write about, which is amazing.”

Michael Machosky

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife,...