advance reading copy; 384 pages
The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash is a remarkable, very highly recommended novel inspired by real historical events, the strike at the Loray Mills, and based on a real person.
Set in the Appalachian foothills of North Carolina in 1929, The Last Ballad Tells the story of twenty-eight-year-old Ella May Wiggins. Ella May earns nine dollars for a seventy-two hour week working as a spinner on the night shift at American Mill No. 2 in Bessemer City. On this paltry sum she is expected to feed and clothe her four living children. Ella May's husband has run off and she's pregnant again.
When Ella May comes across a leaflet for a union that advocates a minimum wage and a forty-hour workweek, she holds on to it and dares to hope for a better life. She attends a union rally in nearby Gastonia, hoping for more information about joining the union. At the rally Ella May is asked to speak about mill conditions, and, after saying a few words, she also sings a song she wrote, A Mother's Lament, that instantly gives a voice to the struggle and propels her into the forefront of the labor movement.
Cash tells the story through Ella May's voice, as well as through a series of other people involved in the events of 1929. Her story is also told in a letter written by her daughter Lilly in 2005. Lilly is now an elderly woman who wants her nephew to know about their family history, especially his grandmother. Although Lilly's letter tells us about what will happen early on in the novel, the journey getting to the events is heartbreaking and inspiring.
The people involved come to life on the pages. You will feel like you have met these characters, shared their thoughts and concerns, listened to their fears, and, just as in life, some of them have much deeper, abiding concerns than others. This story is a moving tribute to everyone who took up the cause and fought for worker's rights, but especially for those who sacrificed so much for the cause.
The Last Ballad is a well-written, eloquent, touching novel that captures the courage and fortitude it takes for someone to face injustice and oppression head-on to try to make a change for the sake of their family. Yes, the fight was for worker's rights, but Ella May was fighting for a cause even closer to her heart, her children and their future. She join the fight for their sake, so she could feed and clothe her family. The stark contrast between the mill owners and those working for them is part of the complete picture created in this novel. I say novel, but it is based on fact, which makes it even more poignant as a novel. Cash's family has a history in the area and connections to mill villages.
Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of this book from HarperCollins for TLC Book Tours.