Winner of the Southern Book Prize for Literary Fiction
Named a Best Book of 2017 by the Chicago Public Library and the American Library Association
“Wiley Cash reveals the dignity and humanity of people asking for a fair shot in an unfair world.”
- Christina Baker Kline, author of A Piece of the World and Orphan Train
The New York Times bestselling author of the celebrated A Land More Kind Than Home and This Dark Road to Mercy returns with this eagerly awaited new novel, set in the Appalachian foothills of North Carolina in 1929 and inspired by actual events. The chronicle of an ordinary woman’s struggle for dignity and her rights in a textile mill, The Last Ballad is a moving tale of courage in the face of oppression and injustice, with the emotional power of Ron Rash’s Serena, Dennis Lehane’s The Given Day, and the unforgettable films Norma Rae and Silkwood.
Twelve times a week, twenty-eight-year-old Ella May Wiggins makes the two-mile trek to and from her job on the night shift at American Mill No. 2 in Bessemer City, North Carolina. The insular community considers the mill’s owners—the newly arrived Goldberg brothers—white but not American and expects them to pay Ella May and other workers less because they toil alongside African Americans like Violet, Ella May’s best friend. While the dirty, hazardous job at the mill earns Ella May a paltry nine dollars for seventy-two hours of work each week, it’s the only opportunity she has. Her no-good husband, John, has run off again, and she must keep her four young children alive with whatever work she can find.
When the union leaflets begin circulating, Ella May has a taste of hope, a yearning for the better life the organizers promise. But the mill owners, backed by other nefarious forces, claim the union is nothing but a front for the Bolshevik menace sweeping across Europe. To maintain their control, the owners will use every means in their power, including bloodshed, to prevent workers from banding together. On the night of the county’s biggest rally, Ella May, weighing the costs of her choice, makes up her mind to join the movement—a decision that will have lasting consequences for her children, her friends, her town—indeed all that she loves.
Seventy-five years later, Ella May’s daughter Lilly, now an elderly woman, tells her nephew about his grandmother and the events that transformed their family. Illuminating the most painful corners of their history, she reveals, for the first time, the tragedy that befell Ella May after that fateful union meeting in 1929.
Intertwining myriad voices, Wiley Cash brings to life the heartbreak and bravery of the now forgotten struggle of the labor movement in early twentieth-century America—and pays tribute to the thousands of heroic women and men who risked their lives to win basic rights for all workers. Lyrical, heartbreaking, and haunting, this eloquent novel confirms Wiley Cash’s place among our nation’s finest writers.
Cash (A Land More Kind than Home) transports readers into the world of real-life ballad singer Ella May Wiggins, a central figure in workers' battle for unionization in North Carolina textile mills, who was shot and killed on Sept. 14, 1929. Alone, pregnant, caring for six sick children, and frightened of losing her job if she takes another day off, Ella uses her Sunday to hitch a ride to a union gathering. Quickly recognized for her courage after fighting off anti-union attackers, she's asked to share a song with the crowd: "We leave our homes in the morning,/ We kiss our children good-bye./ While we slave for the bosses,/ Our children scream and cry." Her message connects, and she instantly becomes a sensation. With this unlikely platform and her unexpected power, Ella May attempts to integrate unions across North Carolina mills, attracting the wrath of union busters, segregationists, and the powerful wealthy class. This suspenseful, moving novel is a story of struggle and personal sacrifice for the greater good that will resonate with readers of John Steinbeck or Ron Rash. \n\nThis review has been corrected. A previous version listed the wrong imprint.
A dark time in history
The Last Ballad shines a keen light on a dark time in the history of the industrialized South. Wiley Cash reveals the gritty hard truth about a time not so long ago that was so ugly and vulgar we avoided facing it. I say this because The Last Ballad is part of my life’s story.
Not only was I born and raised in Gastonia, I have lived here all of my fifty-nine years. I’m one generation removed from the cotton mills. My parents, grand-parents, aunts and uncles worked in the local mills. My father (deceased) grew up on a mill village in Bessemer City and the stories he told echoes The Last Ballad.
As the author notes, the Loray strike was seldom discussed in public. For generations the descendants of the prosperous mill founders and owners were able to stifle progress in Gaston County in part by sanitizing our history in an attempt to remove the enduring stain of the Loray mill strike.
Thanks in part to Wiley Cash and The Last Ballad, perhaps we will emerge from our dark past and join the New South in creating a bright future that benefits all.
Incredible story that still resonates today. Highly recommend.
An absolute masterpiece