I’d long been wanting to read The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash so I am very glad that TLC Book Tours sent me a copy at no charge for my honest review. It was worth the wait.
About The Last Ballad:
• Paperback: 416 pages
• Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks; Reprint edition (June 5, 2018)
Named a Best Book of 2017 by the Chicago Public Library and the American Library Association
“Wiley Cash reveals the dignity and humanity of people asking for a fair shot in an unfair world.”
– Christina Baker Kline, author of A Piece of the World and Orphan Train
The New York Times bestselling author of the celebrated A Land More Kind Than Home and This Dark Road to Mercy returns with this eagerly awaited new novel, set in the Appalachian foothills of North Carolina in 1929 and inspired by actual events. Thechronicle of an ordinary woman’s struggle for dignity and her rights in a textile mill, The Last Ballad is a moving tale of courage in the face of oppression and injustice, with the emotional power of Ron Rash’s Serena, Dennis Lehane’s The Given Day, and the unforgettable films Norma Rae and Silkwood.
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.
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 novel confirms Wiley Cash’s place among our nation’s finest writers.
You can purchase The Last Ballad at Harper Collins
About the Author:
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.
I again tackle an historical novel with it’s roots in the US. I am trying to read more about the past of this country – the good and the bad. In the course of the historical record, the period covered by The Last Ballad happened about an eye blink ago. Considering the path of the United States and its progress, it happened eons ago. Although I fear given the current state of workers’ rights in this country that some of the progress made as a result of the people who fought for the unions is being lost and American labor rights are being eroded.
Ella May Wiggens is living a very hard life in a mixed race community in North Carolina. She works in one of the mills – long hours, six days a week and she makes $9 for her efforts. She has made some bad choices when it comes to men and she has 5 children who rely on her. That $9 doesn’t stretch very far and when Ella May learns about a group promising better wages and working conditions she wants to know more about it so she uses her one day off to go to a union meeting. It’s there that the course of her life changes.
Ella May goes to work for the union. Along the way she makes some new friends – some are very surprising. Other friendships are strengthened as she pushes the union to include her friends at the mill. They are reluctant because they are Negro and while the union is all in favor of their membership they don’t think it’s the time yet in North Carolina.
The book also explores the lives of the people on the other side of the tracks – the mill owners but this is Ella May’s story and it’s a powerful tale. A trailblazing woman from history who was basically lost until this book brought her back to life.
I will admit that it took me a little while to get into this book. Mr. Cash’s writing style for Ella May was rooted in her era so the rhythm of the book required a bit of adjustment. Once I did I found myself immersed in her world. It was quite often, a very unpleasant world to inhabit as you can imagine. Ella May lived in what only kindly could be called a shack with her five children and the men in her life were less than reliable. It’s a shame because she was a driven, talented and intelligent woman – far ahead of her time.
The issues in this book are part of the building blocks of this country. The ordinary people who were lost in these fights are often forgotten so it’s wonderful to see someone like Ella May brought back to life in an engrossing book like this. I will note that the book has piqued my interest in learning more about the start of the labor movement in the country. I must admit that at times in my reading I was quite angry and horrified at working conditions for the people in the mill and the attitude of “management.” And trust me – my father was a man known for his distaste of unions. But in learning more about how and why they began I fully understand their need. And as noted above I fear things are going backwards in regards to worker protections so all of the work of the people like Ella May may be in vain.
The Last Ballad was a book that stayed with me and it will stay on my bookshelf for I think it is one I will want to read again. There is much to find in this tale of one simple woman trying to better herself for the sake of her children. It’s everyone’s story in a way.
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