Published by William Morrow on January 1st 1970
The author of the celebrated bestseller A Land More Kind Than Home returns with this eagerly awaited new novel, set in the Appalachian foothills of North Carolina in 1929 and inspired by actual events, that chronicles an ordinary woman’s struggle for dignity and her rights in a textile mill, 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 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.
Welcome to my stop on the blog tour for The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash! This book first captured by attention at Book Expo 2017. I’d not heard of Ella May Wiggins prior to reading the blurb and I was very drawn to the story of this young woman who fought for social justice and racial and gender equality. I was also very drawn to the beautiful cover!
The Last Ballad is Ella’s story told in chapters which were snippets of the lives of several people who played a role in her story. With the exception of the chapters told in the first person by Ella’s daughter, Lilly, they were not exactly told in different points of view. As the story progresses we begin to understand how they they relate to one another and to Ella’s story on the whole. This worked well for the most part. I loved Lilly’s voice and wish we’d heard more of her story.
This story is beautifully written and it’s clear that Wiley Cash is gifted writer. However, I did find that there were times that I felt the pacing was somewhat slowed by superfluous or overly descriptive narrative. It was difficult to resist the temptation to skim over a few areas so that I could get to more of the “meat” of the story. Though I know this book was based on the true story of Ella May, I’m not sure exactly how much of the book is factual and how much is the author’s imagined version of characters, events, conversations, etc. (This may very well have to do with the fact that I was reading an ARC. Perhaps there will be additional Author’s Notes in the finished copy.) The the story was told in a more plot vs character-driven way. The author did balance this particularly in rendering Hampton’s character.
I applaud Wiley Cash for bringing us Ella’s story and reminding us of the unimaginable struggles she and her neighbors and co-workers faced on a daily basis just to put food on the table. Though this is a story from the 1920’s, parts of it felt sadly relevant to our own political climate today:
“…”Of course not”, Epps said again. “No violence.”
“Just a friendly presence,” Guyon said. “A Good show of good people – mill people – to let the Reds know they’re outnumbered.” “
” “…Just a nasty woman.” “
I definitely felt a little tearful at the end of The Last Ballad. I can certainly see why Wiley Cash has such a devoted following and I look forward to reading his novels again in the future.
Many thanks to William Morrow and TLC Book Tours for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.