There’s a lot of talk at present about bringing back the manufacturing jobs that once allowed a man with a high-school education to support himself and his family in reasonable comfort. Wiley Cash’s new novel, The Last Ballad, reminds us that before the labor union movement of the 1920s and 1930s, manufacturing was far from the cure for all ills affecting working men and women. On the contrary: it paid minimal wages for days of backbreaking or mind-numbing work, with harsh penalties for everything from missing a shift to stopping the production line.
Six days a week, Ella May Wiggins treks two miles to work twelve-hour night shifts in a cotton mill. Seventy-two hours a week for not much more than a dollar a day, but Ella May has no choice. Her husband has skipped town, not for the first time, leaving her with three small children and a baby on the way. She’s already lost a son to whooping cough, and when her daughter falls sick of the same ailment, Ella May takes a chance and skips her shift to stay with the child. She almost loses her job. Even much smaller violations of the rules, like walking away from her spindle for a few minutes, lead to her pay being docked—and this in one of the town’s more progressive factories. So it’s small wonder that Ella May responds when labor organizers come down from the North to encourage workers to strike for better conditions and salaries that might keep body and soul together.
The story goes back and forth in time—parts told by Ella’s now grown daughter Lilly in 2005, others reflecting the viewpoints of seven other characters, including Ella herself, and going back as far as 1918. The stories interweave and unfold, creating a multifaceted picture of desperation and tension, conflict and commitment, Lilly’s nostalgia and loss. Child labor, race relations, inequality, and much more become personal, specific, beautiful in its uncompromising, searing prose. Here, for example, is Ella driving for the first time:
“She thought of a book she’d read when she was a girl, The Time Machine, one of the few books her mother had had in the stringhouse at the lumber camp. She remembered how the machine had allowed the Time Traveler to go back millions of years, and she imagined herself doing that now as she rocketed through space in what felt like the middle of the night.... She didn’t want to go back millions of years. She just wanted to go back far enough to find herself as the young girl who’d never left home, whose mother and father were both still alive, whose children somehow existed in the world as well and would be waiting for her on the porch at the lumber camp.”
Based on a true story—the Loray Mill strike of 1929 in Gastonia, North Carolina, one of the few communist-led strikes in US history—The Last Ballad explores factory life in the 1920s from the perspectives of both workers and owners. But the heart of the story is Ella May Wiggins, a forgotten woman who put her life on the line to help others like herself achieve a better life but whose fellow townspeople—the author’s grandparents among them—long buried the memory not only of Ella but of the movement for which she fought.