Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Last Ballad

Full disclosure, I follow Wiley Cash on all of his social media and I adore his posts. I know some people say authors (and athletes) need to stay in their lane and I disagree. I don't think there are lanes, and I really love his viewpoint. I've been a fan of his since I read This Dark Road to Mercy and I just love his writing.


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 others 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 she can find. 

When the union leaflets first come through the mill, 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 lies, threats, and 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 whole story of what happened to 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 new novel confirms Wiley Cash’s place among our nation’s finest writers.

I have to be upfront, I didn't think this book was going to be a tear-jerker for me but oh, how wrong I was. I also didn't anticipate this book to be reminiscent of current events, so much. It puts things that we look back now and say, "Holy crap- that was SO wrong!" into perspective when you think that perhaps... we haven't really changed as a society. We still discriminate against minorities, we still discriminate against poor people, and when we do right by them we expect to be applauded, pointed out and say, "They do so much for the underprivileged.", when really, that shouldn't be applauded- it should be a normal, every day thing we do without question. I really was taken aback by how awful it had to be living in this time period, in horrific working conditions, and saddled with children. I think about what I would do if that were me today and I would be truly lost. I also want to point out that it really shows how industrious people were when they had to be. Do I think any one of us would handle things like Ella May? Stretching food, money, supplies like she? I don't. I think that's a skill long ago lost.

Anyways. I've gone off track. The book starts off in present day, Lilly writing a letter to her a nephew, presumably because he's asked her about his grandmother and maybe the story of their family. In my experience working with older people, many don't like to speak of things like this and they sometimes believe you leave the past in the past. I'm also of the belief that we should all have the opportunity to know where we come from, what stories (good or bad) lay in our family tree, so right away I liked Lilly.

We're then brought back to 1929, Ella May finds herself with her husband long gone and saddled with a handful of children. She's working at American Mill No. 2, in a sea of African American workers, which makes her controversial already because while we no longer have slavery, things are still racially divided. Ella has a pamphlet about the up and coming labor movement and hears of a rally happening in a nearby town. Curious, and with nothing really to lose, she makes the fateful decision to jump onto a truck in head in. Obviously met by protesters, Ella gets her first taste at the anger so many feel towards the labor movement, thought to be Communists, and she is rightfully scared. She attends the rally and suddenly finds herself propelled on stage to speak about her story and she sings. She quickly becomes a sensation, the face of the movement in the South. Soon she's attending rallies, going to Washington, D.C, trying to rally her African American friends to join the union (though it's not encouraged by everyone, the racial divide is still alive and not everyone is willing to work alongside African Americans, good cause or not).

I loved this book so much, even more so when I finished it. It's hard to appreciate the greatness of something while you're in it, but as soon as you turn that last page and you have it's entirety to look back on- it hits you. This book is rich in American history, but it's also relevant to the current political times. A lot of the same feelings portrayed in this book are felt today and maybe that was the author's intention- make it glaringly obvious that while some things have improved, as a whole we really haven't changed as a society.

I have to share the very last line from Ella's perspective because I read it over and over again and just thought about how it relates to my life. It's one of those lines that's going to stick with me.

"She felt her breathing slow, something warm and comfortable overtake her. She wanted to reach up and touch one of the bolls, to feel its softness against her fingers, perhaps hold it to her cheek, but she found that she could not lift her arms, could not open her hands. Instead, she lay with her eyes fixed on the cotton, thinking, What a small thing. What a small, little thing."

When I finished it I immediately wanted to know what happened to Ella May's children, and we find out a little bit and that little bit was heartbreaking for me because I thought of my own children. How, if split up, Lucy likely would never remember Olivia, and how great Olivia was with her. Perhaps Penelope wouldn't even remember her. It's sad and yet... it was reality for so many families. It made me think of another one of my favorite books, Orphan Train, and I was so glad to see the author, Christina Baker Kline, wrote kind words about this book as well. 

Truly, if you are looking for a book that brings history alive, ties it to the present, and leaves you with feelings and thoughts, this is the book for you. Wiley Cash is right up there with my favorite authors and his books always leave you wanting more and you finish the book as a different person than you were when you started. 

1 comment:

Heather J @ TLC Book Tours said...

Wow, this sounds like an incredibly good read - I'm glad to see how much you enjoyed it!

Thanks for being a part of the tour.