The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
“Pretty took the will to be so and the money to do it and the time to see to it and the sleep to maintain it, and Ella didn’t have any of those things.” Substitute “Poverty” for “Pretty” and one recognizes the dilemma that Ella May Wiggins faces in The Last Ballad. A single white female and the sole supporter of four children, she is immersed in a poverty which offers no respite. Yet, remarkably for someone in 1929 Gastonia, North Carolina, she realizes that she’s not alone. The black citizens with whom she lives in Stumptown, a ramshackle ghetto, and with whom she works in American Mill #2 are no different from her. They all work 72 hours per week for $9 at the whim of avaricious mill owners who pay the lowest wages in the only mill that permits blacks and whites to work together. Poverty, she says. “We got that in common.”
A native of Gastonia and the son of textile mill workers, Wiley Cash was in graduate school at Louisiana State University when he first heard of Ella May Wiggins and the 1929 Loray Mill Strike. It had simply disappeared from the history of his town. Recently, in conversation with Randall Kenan at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, Cash recounted how he came to write the book and its backstory. His mother’s maiden name was Wiggins yet there had never been any connection. The facts of Ella’s life were scant: birth, marriage, children, ballads, her role in seeking integrated unions, her death. Four of her nine children were dead of pellagra or whooping cough by 1929.
In April of that year the workers of the Loray Mill went out on strike seeking better pay and relief from its terrible conditions. They were fired and thrown out of their milltown homes. Living in a tent city, they began efforts to form a union and remain safe from the Klu Klux Klan and a corrupt police department, often the same individuals. An ad in the local paper, reproduced with minor modifications on the first page, stated that the strike was an attempt to “mask the Bolshevists’ desire to overthrow the government and destroy property and to kill, kill, kill.” It was paid for by the “Council of Concerned Citizens of Gaston County,” nothing more than a white supremacist group reporting the “fake news” of the day.
The Last Ballad opens on May 4, 1929 when Ella has been called into the “other Goldberg’s” office because she missed her shift the previous night. In a few pages, Cash adroitly begins to shape the life of one courageous woman to lay bare the conflict between rapacious owners and their powerless workers. That her daughter has whooping cough is of no consequence. She has missed three nights of work since January and that just won’t do. She is not fired, but while being berated she fingers a union leaflet she had found earlier that day, and her course is set. As soon as she begins working for unionization, and especially because she truly believed in the equality of blacks and whites, the inevitability of her end is set into motion and the grand drama of this magnificent novel begins.
The story is told from eight different perspectives that include Ella and her daughter Lilly, age 87, in December 2005. Lilly is the “contemporary anchor” who explains to her nephew that Ella’s children “disappeared” after her death. Now “ashamed of being ashamed,” she explains that he needs to know who he is and “ressurects” Ella’s story.
Cash’s marvelous prose recalls Ron Rash (Serena, Above the Waterfall), another great writer who sets his stories in Appalachia. Cash’s mentors Ernest Gaines and Larry Brown remain significant influences on his approach to writing: “I hear Gaines when I write dialogue, landscape,” Cash explained at Flyleaf Books. “He took me back to the soil. Brown made literature out of people who didn’t think they were worth literature.” Cash’s depiction of time and place is extraordinary: it is an intimate look at the history of a place and the people who struggled to persevere.
A famous North Carolina writer once said that you can’t go home again, but Wiley Cash proves the opposite. As he did in two previous highly acclaimed novels, A Land More Kind Than Home and This Dark Road to Mercy, Cash returns to his roots in Appalachia and presents a magnificent fictional account of a very real and long-forgotten part of our history. Ella May Wiggins is a strong and courageous woman whose efforts to stand up to power should never be forgotten.
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