Friday, November 10, 2017

The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash - Book Review

Wiley Cash’s new novel The Last Ballad (William Morrow, 2017, 389 pages, $26.99/$12.99) tells the story of the largely failed 1929 strike at the Loray Mill in Gastonia, North Carolina through the eyes of Ella May Wiggins, who became a heroine of the American labor movement after her death. Narrated as a detailed flashback by her grand daughter, and seen through the eyes of a number of fictional or fictionalized characters, whose lives in various elements of society brought them together at the mill during this fateful period of industrial vs. labor strife as well as during the beginnings of the civil rights struggle in its nascent years. Told in leisurely, often poetic, prose, Cash takes his time in revealing these stories as the roots of contemporary North Carolina, where the rifts still affect not only the local elements of this geographically and culturally crucial state, but the nation as a whole.

As Ella Mae sits in the back of a pickup truck with Pittsburgh-based labor organizer Sophia, her life history from Tennessee subsistence farming, to logging camps, to working in the mills mirrors the early history of North Carolina’s southern Piedmont as it moved from mid-nineteenth century rural bootlegging to an area using the region’s resources of running water, cotton, and available labor to build a burgeoning mill industry. The growth of mill culture as rural people heard the empty promises of recruiters offering the secure life of mill villages where, in fact, grinding poverty and constant debt kept them indentured in a manner not too different from the slaves, who had been released from bondage only a few decades before, using Gaston County, NC at the center.

Based on the actual happenings at the Loray Mill strike of 1929, representing an elemental moment in the development of the American labor movement, the story is intriguing, nuanced, and lyrically told through the eyes of a variety of participants. The novel brings to life the non-fiction book Linthead Stomp by Patrick Huber, which describes life and music in the mill towns of the early twentieth century. The strike and riots soon inspired a series of novels, now referred to as the “Gastonia Novels,” which extolled the virtues of class struggle and left wing politics.

Ella Mae Wiggins

As the story, told in vignettes from the perspective of people coming in contact with Ella May Wiggins unwinds, Cash captures the spirit of rural Gaston County, the rise of the mills, the influences on the development of the mill culture as the insatiable need for thread and cloth in rapidly industrializing America is fulfilled against the poverty of white and black workers. Names like evangelist Amy Semple McPherson, Belmont Abbey College, and towns like Lincolnton, Cherryville, Spartanburg, leading to Gastonia give the setting of labor unrest, the communist menace portrayed during the red scare, incipient deep-seated racial animus, and the fight against grinding poverty a living sense of reality. These elements come together in the struggle between the mill owners, their hired thugs, and the northern agitators eager to organize, free, and exploit the workers in a toxic, and ultimately tragic mix. Cash’s rich, lyrical language combines with lively portrayal of the characters who emerge to create a story that touches the imagination while portraying a reality built on facts and extending beyond them.

In two families, the McAdams and the Lytles, Cash describes another aspect of the duality of North Carolina’s aristocracy, pitting the lowland remnants of ante-bellum aristocracy against the post-war growth sparked by the industrialization of the South. Contrasting these two cultures of wealth and privilege to the white and black poverty of workers, Cash creates a rich soup of tension, distrust, and fear. Into this mix, racial, social, and economic politics help create a friction that still can be seen in the mystery that North Carolina presents to the country and the world. Slowly the lives of the characters cross and merge as the coming tragedy begins to take shape. The structure of the novel features a large range of characters from different walks of life – worker, factory owner, labor organizer, plantation owner, railroad porter, and others - whose lives come together in Gastonia, NC in the summer and fall of 1929.

Wiley Cash

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.

In The Last Ballad (William Morrow, 2017, 389 pages, $26.99/$12.99), Wiley Cash shows the ability to take characters who might easily become stereotyped, flesh them out, bring them to life, and place them in settings where their intersection with the other characters becomes believable while taking on a life of their own, leading inevitably to the playing out of The Last Ballad. While the story is a tragic one, it nevertheless points to a hopeful time where both conditions and relationships are improved, while the deep history of these events continues to influence the present. I was provided a digital edition of The Last Ballad by the publisher through Edelweiss and read it on my Kindle app. Highly recommended!

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