Thursday, June 21, 2018
Published October 2017 by HarperCollins Publishers
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher and TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review
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 other 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 work she can find.
When the union leaflets begin circulating, 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 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 tragedy that befell Ella May after that fateful union meeting in 1929.
TLC Book Tours: Hey, do you want to read the new Wiley Cash book for a review?
Me: How is that even a question?
Ok, well, that's not exactly how the conversation went but it's pretty close. I've read and loved Cash's first two books (A Land More Kind Than Home and This Dark Road To Mercy). The only question when they asked me to review The Last Ballad was why had I not read it earlier. It's a question I'm still asking myself. Because Cash has done it again and I'm not sure why I haven't heard more about this book in the blogosphere.
Cash is a master at using multiple voices to tell his story. Here it is Ella May's story that is the through line of the book but Cash moves the story forward through the stories of those whose lives will intertwine with hers. There is not a character in this book whose story I was not interested in reading but I was always happy to get back to Ella, a woman who has finally tired of letting life carry her along, who is tired of watching her children go hungry and being used by every man she has met since her father died.
If you know your history, you know that violence was the norm which these strikes. So even if you've never read one of Cash's book (and know that things will get tense and there will be sadness), you'll know almost as soon as you start reading this book that something bad will happen before the book is done. It's the South, Ella's a mill worker, and she lives in a community of blacks. While Cash gives us brief periods of reprieve, there are so many levels of stress here that your apprehension never really lets up.
There's a tendency to think of the mill owners as the bad guys, the union organizers as the good guys, the ones who are coming in to help the workers to have a better life. But Cash wants readers to see how the unions were just as willing to use the workers to get what they wanted. The bad guys here are predominately mill management and law enforcement but there are more nuanced characters on both sides of the fight.
Poignant is a word that is probably used all too often in book reviews. Yet I don't know a better word to describe this book.
The Last Ballad is based on the true story of Ella May Wiggins and Cash shares her story in the Afterword. Do not look Wiggins up or peek at that Afterword. You want to this story to unfold in the way Cash wants to tell it. When you've finished, go read about Wiggins and the mill strikes; but not until you're finished.
Thanks to the ladies at TLC Book Tours for making sure I read this one. I've already passed it along to my parents and the day I gave it to them, my dad had already started it because he well remembered A Land More Kind Than Home. For other opinions on this book, check out the full tour.
Wiley Cash is the award-winning and New York Times bestselling author of A Land More Kind Than Home. A native of North Carolina, he has held residency positions at Yaddo and The MacDowell Colony and teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Southern New Hampshire University. He and his wife live in Wilmington, North Carolina. Find out more about Wiley at his website, and connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.