Thursday, October 5, 2017

The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash

The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash
Published by William Morrow ISBN 9780062313119
Hardcover, $26.99, 304 pages

Although Wiley Cash's newest novel, The Last Ballad, is set in 1929, the themes of the struggling working class, the politics of rich versus poor, racism and sexism are as relevant today as they were then.

Young Ella May Wiggins is 28 years-old, a mother of four with a husband who deserts her. She works the night shift at the local textile mill, making less than $10 a week, which is not enough to feed her children.

When Ella had to miss to a shift to care for sickly daughter she is called into the owner's office, accused of being lazy and threatened with dismissal by a man who shows no compassion for Ella's situation.

Ella relies on nine-year-old daughter Lily and her friend and neighbor Violet to help care for the other younger children while she works. She is tired of not being paid enough for her work and when a union comes to town, Ella works up to the courage to attend a meeting.

She meets two women who are driving people to the meeting, and when Ella sings them a song she wrote about her situation, they convince her to sing for the crowd. Ella's beautiful voice and song move the crowd so much that Ella becomes a symbol of the labor movement.

Ella agrees to work for the union, and pushes for the union to include the black factory workers in their organization efforts. The factory where she works is one of the few that has black and white workers on the line.

The factory owners accuse the workers of being Communists, and indeed it is the Communist party that helps to organize the labor movement. The workers are threatened with violence and forcibly evicted from their factory-owned homes when they dare to try and organize a union.

The tension rachets up as the workers appear to be on a collison course with the factory owners. When a black union organizer, a Pullman porter named Hampton, comes to town to help Ella organize her neighbors, he is forced to reconcile a past he tried to forget.

Cash's writing is so powerful, and he conveys so much with his words, like this:
"Pretty took the will to be so and the money to do it and the time to see it and the sleep to maintain it, and Ella didn't have any of those things."
"But no matter how long the (Goldberg) brothers and their families lived in town, they never forgot the first night in their new home when some time before dawn they awoke to the orange glow of the six-foot-tall wooden cross afire in the front yard. They also never forgot the next morning's visit from the Christian Ladies' Association, a group largely comprised of the wives of local ministers. The women appeared unannounced that Saturday morning, cakes and flowers and casseroles in hand. They walked single-file up the walk past the blackened grass and the charred, smoking remains of the cross their husbands had left behind."
I'm not sure that reading The Last Ballad made me hopeful that things are better in our country or sad that not enough progress has been made. Cash based his book on a real incident, and Ella Wiggins was a real woman who took on factory owners in Gaston, North Carolina. Like the strong female characters in the movies Norma Rae (based on a real woman, Crystal Lee Sutton) and Karen Silkwood in Silkwood, Ella Wiggins is an unforgettable woman looking to make a more just world. We need more of them.

I highly recommend The Last Ballad, especially for young women.

Thanks to TLC Tours for putting me on Wiley Cash's tour. The rest of his stops are here:

Tour Stops

Tuesday, October 3rd: she treads softly
Wednesday, October 4, 2017 5 Minutes For Books
Wednesday, October 4th: No More Grumpy Bookseller
Thursday, October 5th: bookchickdi
Monday, October 9th: Into the Hall of Books
Tuesday, October 10th: Girl Who Reads
Friday, October 13th: Jathan & Heather
Monday, October 16th: Tina Says…
Tuesday, October 17th: Lit.Wit.Wine.Dine.
Wednesday, October 18th: Stranded in Chaos
Thursday, October 19th: Broken Teepee


  1. I know Wiley is very passionate about this book so I'm not surprised to see it's so good. I'm hoping to see him when he comes here on his book tour.

  2. You're so right - we do need more Ella's in this world!

    Thanks for being a part of the tour.