Lyddie grew out of Paterson's participation in the Women's History Project, which was part of Vermont's bicentennial in 1991. The book, which is well researched, focuses on one woman who goes to work in a nineteenth-century factory. Through Lyddie's experiences, the reader is presented with the stories of a variety of factory workers. The story is literate, believable, and gives the reader a strong sense of time and place, focusing on a young protagonist who overcomes great difficulties. In the novel's first chapter, Lyddie must confront a bear. Later she is separated from her family, must walk most of the way to Concord, is injured in a factory accident, must face the death of her mother, is attacked by her boss, and is fired from two different jobs. Despite her problems, she still hopes for a better life and tries to educate herself.
In the end, Lyddie is able to break down the barriers she puts up between her and other people, learning to care for others again. The book also treats other topics of great interest to young adults, such as Lyddie's attempts to become a part of society, to become successful in her profession, to break past barriers imposed on women, to learn to read and write, and to gain an education. Ultimately, Lyddie becomes an even stronger person, giving up her own obsession with money and security to help an Irish factory worker, Brigid.