Published by William Morrow on October 3, 2017
Source: the publisher
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Twelve times a week, twenty-eight-year old Ella May Wiggins makes the two-mile trek to and from her job on the night shift at American Mill No. 2 in Bessemer City, North Carolina. The insular community considers the mill’s owners—the newly arrived Goldberg brothers—white but not American and expects them to pay Ella May and others workers less because they toil alongside African Americans like Violet, Ella May’s best friend. While the dirty, hazardous job at the mill earns Ella May a paltry nine dollars for seventy-two hours of work each week, it’s the only opportunity she has. Her no-good husband John has run off again, and she must keep her four young children alive with whatever she can find.
When the union leaflets first come through the mill, Ella May has a taste of hope, a yearning for the better life the organizers promise. But the mill owners, backed by other nefarious forces, claim the union is nothing but a front for the Bolshevik menace sweeping across Europe. To maintain their control, the owners will use every means in their power, including lies, threats, and bloodshed, to prevent workers from banding together. On the night of the county’s biggest rally, Ella May, weighing the costs of her choice, makes up her mind to join the movement—a decision that will have lasting consequences for her children, her friends, her town—indeed all that she loves.
Seventy-five years later, Ella May’s daughter Lilly, now an elderly woman, tells her nephew about his grandmother and the events that transformed their family. Illuminating the most painful corners of their history, she reveals, for the first time, the whole story of what happened to Ella May after that fateful union meeting in 1929.
Intertwining myriad voices, Wiley Cash brings to life the heartbreak and bravery of the now forgotten struggle of the labor movement in early Twentieth Century America—and pays tribute to the thousands of heroic women and men who risked their lives to win basic rights for all workers. Lyrical, heartbreaking, and haunting, this eloquent new novel confirms Wiley Cash’s place among our nation’s finest writers.
I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
The Last Ballad is a fiction story that is based on real history and real people. It tells a the story of the Loray Mill Strike of 1929, which took place in Gastonia, NC. This was historically one of the largest textile strikes in the US (as far as I can tell), and certainly one of the most significant of the time. This occurred during a time and place of huge racial tension in North Carolina and across the South, and this strike was a chance for mill workers to strike for better wages and working conditions.
The story’s main character, Ella May Wiggins, was a real woman, and I’m sad to say that before reading The Last Ballad, I had never heard of her. Ella May was a single mother with several children who worked 72 hours per week for a paycheck of $9/week. She worked nights and had no choice but to leave her children alone to take care of one another while she worked. When she occasionally missed work due to her daughter’s recurring illness, she was penalized and treated poorly by her bosses at the mill. When she put in a request to be moved to the day shift so she wouldn’t have to leave her children at home, she was ignored.
Ella May was reluctant to join the strike because what if her boss got angry and she lost her job? How would she take care of her children then? She was already living paycheck-to-paycheck, and barely. But she saw absolutely no other choice and she felt like she could make a difference. She felt like her story was similar to other mill workers across the area, so she took the chance and joined the union. She eventually became a leader among the strikers, raising interest in the union by singing motivational ballads at the meetings. She was far more progressive than most strikers, however, because she advocated for fair wages and working conditions for all people, regardless of color. This was dangerous during such a racially tense time in North Carolina and made Ella May a large target for people that wanted to shut down the strike and for racists.
The Last Ballad is structured so that we are able to hear from multiple POV’s. We hear from Ella May, of course. But we also hear from various people in the community, people that are situated on all sides of the strike. I love this method of storytelling, particularly coming from Wiley Cash, because it gives depth to a story that is already so layered and nuanced. Mr. Cash historically has a way of showing that there is usually something good on each side of a conflict, even if it isn’t obvious, even if it is small, and that sometimes the obviously good aren’t always pure in their motives. For example, one of the more pivotal secondary characters is a mill owner’s wife that is sympathetic to the strikers’ cause. On the other side, many of the strikers show violent racism in their words and actions.
Another thing that I love about this book and Mr. Cash’s other stories is the theme of redemption. There is one character in The Last Ballad that I felt was a little bit oddly placed for a while, until I got to the end and suddenly that particular character’s inclusion clicked into place and made perfect sense. I suppose to that I would say: sometimes people spend their entire lives trying to atone for a past hurt or wrong. It is always so satisfying to me when I read of someone that has tried for years to redeem his/herself and an act comes full circle.
I love love love Wiley Cash’s other books, but I think The Last Ballad may be my favorite. His stories just grab my heart for one reason or another. They are so full of North Carolina to me, so full of home. They’re also dust and hard work, they’re the South, they’re the very best people and also some of the worst. Every time I close a Cash book, no matter if I’m reading it for the first time or if it is a reread, I am always overwhelmed by that story and I just need to sit with it for awhile.
The Last Ballad is one that I’ve spent considerable time anticipating in 2017 and I’m so excited to say that it’s a top-shelf, rereads-worthy favorite for this year.