Thursday, November 01, 2018
The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash
Before I get into the synopsis of The Last Ballad, I have to tell you the coolest thing about reading this book. I read Wiley Cash's last book, This Dark Road to Mercy, and was impressed. So I drove up to Oxford, Mississippi to see Wiley speak at Square Books when he came through on his book tour. At the time, Wiley had recently read about the events that The Last Ballad is based upon and was already beginning to plot his next novel. He talked about the historical background a bit and said he was excited about his next project. It's been several years so it was a thrill to finally get to read the book that was, at that time, still mostly an idea in his head. Incidentally, if you ever get a chance to see Wiley speak, you must. He's an excellent speaker.
The Last Ballad is the story of the early labor movement, with focus on a woman who was murdered in the 1920s. Ella May Wiggins is a single mother with four young children. Her husband, John, has run off, leaving her to support them on her job at the local mill, where she earns nine dollars a week. Most of the time, the children are left at home alone during her night shift but, as the book opens, Ella May is being called in to talk to the boss because she missed a shift to take care of a sick child. She has already lost one child to illness and her unwillingness to risk the life of another has threatened her job.
Shortly after she's chastised for missing work, Ella May hears about the fancy New Yorkers who have come to town to help create a labor union. Ella May's children wear tattered clothing and the entire family is skinny and starving, most of the time. She's encouraged by the idea of a union improving their lives and goes to a meeting to see what it's all about. And, then another. In spite of the violent attempts to stop the union, Ella May is undeterred. She writes her own lyrics about the hardship of a mill worker and is persuaded to sing at a gathering. From then on, she's well-known and it's only through finagling a job working for the union organizers that she's able to continue getting an income.
But, being involved is dangerous work.
Highly recommended - Gorgeous prose, a story that really gets into the depths to which employers will go to increase the bottom line at the expense of their employees and makes you practically feel the hunger of Ella May and her family. Sad, moving, and meaningful. Just a fantastic story that will leave you in awe of the main character's courage and tenacity. There were times I felt a tiny bit bored and wondered if The Last Ballad couldn't have been edited down a bit, yet the writing is so beautiful that it would be awful to remove a word from it. I'm so impressed with Wiley Cash's writing.
I still have Wiley's first book, unread. Now I'm doubly looking forward to it.
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