In 1929, Ella May Wiggins is a poor white single mother living in a black community in Gaston County, North Carolina. Tired of putting in twelve-hour days at a local textile mill while her children grew sick without her, she quits and becomes both an organizer and a singer for a labor union, which she hopes to integrate. As Ella Mae’s songs become more popular, she wins more recognition within the labor movement and more scorn from mill owners and the local police, and her fate becomes intertwined with those of several.
In recent years, Wiley Cash has emerged as one of North Carolina’s best storytellers. He captures the sense-of-place of the state’s western rural communities and the hardnosed sensibility of its inhabitants as well as anyone this side of Ron Rash. The Last Ballad, Cash’s third novel, sees him wed these skills to an exploration of local history. Ella Mae Wiggins and the Loray Mill Strike may be little remembered these days, but Cash gives them their due and then some in a powerful and evocative novel.
Though Ella Mae is the book’s central character, The Last Ballad does not read like a fictionalized biography. It alternates tales of her trials and tribulations with explorations of those in her orbit: the hapless drunk Verchel Parks, the young black organizer Hampton Haywood, the privileged but socially conscious McAdam family, and Ella Mae’s own daughter, who narrates periodically from a much later date. These shifts in focus allow Ella Mae to retain a mythical quality (for if the novel stayed with her the whole time, such a saintly depiction would invite incredulity) and also show how the injustices that Ella Mae fought against reached across lines of geography, gender, race, and class.
In this way, The Last Ballad is something of a Southern cousin to Dennis Lehane’s brilliant The Given Day, an equally broad-ranging look at the 1919 Boston Police Strike. But whereas Lehane’s book built toward a crescendo of violence, Cash’s keeps its tension at a steady low boil, erupting in devastating moments without fully spilling over. This ensures that The Last Ballad’s losses still sting even when readers know they are coming.
While some readers won’t cotton (pun not intended) to the book’s abundance of perspectives and the contrivance of their connectivity, others may be put off by its perceived schilling for a Communist-affiliated union. This is a shallow criticism if there ever was one. Readers needn’t sing Soviet praises to sympathize with Ella Mae, and in truth, the book isn’t particularly flattering toward union leadership. A more worthwhile source of disappointment is the abundance of sentimentality in the book’s final chapters. So much sorrow arises organically that it makes little sense for Cash to consciously (and clumsily) ratchet it up, yet he did so anyway.
Richly immersive and teeming with personal struggles and crises of conscience, The Last Ballad is a book not easily forgotten.