• Hardcover: 384 pages
• Publisher: William Morrow (October 3, 2017)
“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. The chronicle 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.
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Ella May Wiggins is a 28 year-old woman with five kids, one who has already died. Six days a week she walks two mile to work the night shift at American Mill No.2, a textile mill in 1929, for $9.00 a week. With no husband, this is barely enough to keep her family afloat. Luckily, Ella may has the help of her colored neighbors in Stumptown when she is at work. Fed up with the long hours, dangerous conditions and paltry pay, Ella May joins the labor union movement. She is quickly elevated as a poster child for the movement, especially because of her unique voice and songwriting skills that weave her experience in the mill into a ballad that all workers can relate to.
Told through alternating viewpoints of Ella May and people who came in and out of her life, we learn about Ella May's involvement in the labor union movement and how it ultimately led to her demise. This is not a spoiler as this is revealed quite early on in the story. However, this was quite a shock to me and for the rest of the story I was wondering how all of these other viewpoints would lead up to that moment. I did enjoy learning about this time in history and the labor union movement, especially the role that women played. I was definitely inspired by Ella May's song and was glad to learn that it had such an impact on those around her. Through the different voices, I was lead through a dark part of US history, the fight for and against worker's rights. I do wish that there was more of a centralized voice, with so many narrators I did have a little trouble focusing on Ella May and seeing how everything fit together in some cases.
This story was received for free in return for an honest review.
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.