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The Last Ballad: A Novel by Wiley Cash

The Last Ballad: A Novel

by Wiley Cash

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1992959,063 (3.89)59
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    Serena by Ron Rash (BookshelfMonstrosity)
    BookshelfMonstrosity: These novels set during the Depression explore workers' rights from different perspectives. Serena is violent and dark while The Last Ballad is moving and inspiring; both examine the courage and cowardice of players on each side of the labor movement.… (more)

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I received a free print copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Ella May Wiggins has had a hard life. She's only 28 years old and has given birth to five children, buried one, and is pregnant with her sixth. Her husband walked out after the death of their child. To say that she's struggling is a major understatement. She and all those that live and work in the mills are struggling to make it. She works six days a week, 12-hour shifts, and gets paid a measly $9.00/week. Her children often go hungry and cold simply because she can't afford to buy food or provide them with decent housing. Ella doesn't complain because she knows it could be worse, but she hopes it might get better as well. Then she's called into her bosses office and warned because she's missed three days in five months time and if she misses one more she may be out of a job. It's this threat of unemployment that sends Ella May to find out more about the people wanting to unionize the workers at the mills. What Ella May doesn't know is that her chance visit to the new textile workers union organization is going to change not only her life but the lives of her children and plenty of those around her for years to come.

The Last Ballad is told in a variety of voices, namely that of Ella May Wiggins, Ella's daughter Lilly, and a host of others. What makes this story all the more sensational and heartrending is that it is based on a real person. The reader gets to know Ella May firsthand and understand her internal struggle to do right by her family and join the union in the late 1920s. We also meet her daughter in the mid-2000s and find out what happened to Ella May's children after all these years. As with any story about unionization, there is a lot of tears and bloodshed. Mr. Wiley doesn't present us with a happy or a sad story but simply a fictionalized story of one woman's real and deadly struggles with the textile workers union in the late 1920s in North Carolina. I enjoyed this story but struggled with it at times simply because of the use of the "n-word" by Whites in the early 1900s to refer to Black Americans and the deadly force used by those trying to stop the unionization. In a lot of ways, this struggle to unionize reminded me of stories of unionization struggles in the coalfields in Appalachia around the same time period, especially those here in West Virginia. This is a story for fighting for what's right against insurmountable odds. It's a story about friendship seeing beyond the color lines of the times. It's also a story about family. For those of you that enjoy historical fiction, I encourage you to grab a copy of The Last Ballad to read. For those of you that enjoy reading about twentieth-century American History, then I encourage you to grab a copy of The Last Ballad to read. Actually, I encourage everyone to grab a copy of The Last Ballad to read, but you might not want it in your suitcase as a beach read, unless you don't have a problem with heavy reads while at the beach.

This review originally posted on 06/20/2018 at http://www.thebookdivasreads.com/2018/06/2018-book-235-last-ballad-by-wiley-cash.... ( )
  BookDivasReads | Jun 20, 2018 |
I again tackle an historical novel with it’s roots in the US. I am trying to read more about the past of this country – the good and the bad. In the course of the historical record, the period covered by The Last Ballad happened about an eye blink ago. Considering the path of the United States and its progress, it happened eons ago. Although I fear given the current state of workers’ rights in this country that some of the progress made as a result of the people who fought for the unions is being lost and American labor rights are being eroded.

Ella May Wiggens is living a very hard life in a mixed race community in North Carolina. She works in one of the mills – long hours, six days a week and she makes $9 for her efforts. She has made some bad choices when it comes to men and she has 5 children who rely on her. That $9 doesn’t stretch very far and when Ella May learns about a group promising better wages and working conditions she wants to know more about it so she uses her one day off to go to a union meeting. It’s there that the course of her life changes.

Ella May goes to work for the union. Along the way she makes some new friends – some are very surprising. Other friendships are strengthened as she pushes the union to include her friends at the mill. They are reluctant because they are Negro and while the union is all in favor of their membership they don’t think it’s the time yet in North Carolina.

The book also explores the lives of the people on the other side of the tracks – the mill owners but this is Ella May’s story and it’s a powerful tale. A trailblazing woman from history who was basically lost until this book brought her back to life.

I will admit that it took me a little while to get into this book. Mr. Cash’s writing style for Ella May was rooted in her era so the rhythm of the book required a bit of adjustment. Once I did I found myself immersed in her world. It was quite often, a very unpleasant world to inhabit as you can imagine. Ella May lived in what only kindly could be called a shack with her five children and the men in her life were less than reliable. It’s a shame because she was a driven, talented and intelligent woman – far ahead of her time.

The issues in this book are part of the building blocks of this country. The ordinary people who were lost in these fights are often forgotten so it’s wonderful to see someone like Ella May brought back to life in an engrossing book like this. I will note that the book has piqued my interest in learning more about the start of the labor movement in the country. I must admit that at times in my reading I was quite angry and horrified at working conditions for the people in the mill and the attitude of “management.” And trust me – my father was a man known for his distaste of unions. But in learning more about how and why they began I fully understand their need. And as noted above I fear things are going backwards in regards to worker protections so all of the work of the people like Ella May may be in vain.

The Last Ballad was a book that stayed with me and it will stay on my bookshelf for I think it is one I will want to read again. There is much to find in this tale of one simple woman trying to better herself for the sake of her children. It’s everyone’s story in a way. ( )
  BrokenTeepee | Jun 18, 2018 |
I have read other Wiley Cash books and thoroughly enjoyed them. I have heard him speak and even had dinner with him at a literary event. He writes beautifully and is clearly invested in the forgotten or hidden stories he tells of his native South. The Last Ballad, based on a true story, is a novel that he obviously holds close to his heart. Ironically though, despite his closeness to the subject matter, it is the least successful of his novels for me.

It's 1929 and Ella May Wiggins is a single mother of five children (four living) who works in a textile mill in Bessemer City, NC. She earns $9 a week, which isn't really enough to feed and clothe herself and her children. Her alcoholic ex-husband up and left before her last baby was born and the man she's with now (and pregnant by) is almost as no-account as her disappeared husband. Ella May lives in Stumptown, in the Negro part of town, despite the fact that she and her children are white. The Wiggins family, like their black neighbors, live in grinding, desperate poverty. When Ella May is reprimanded for missing work to care for her very ill child, she decides that she will attend a meeting to see what unionization could mean to her and to her children. Despite her fear of losing her job and the only income she has, she agrees to join the movement. After singing a heart-rending ballad she's written about the mills and motherhood, she quickly becomes the local face for the union, trading her mill job for one within the union organization. But the local mill owners are not about to allow these communist unions into their mills without a fight, a truly horrible and violent fight if required. Ella May, being so publicly recognizable will be square in the cross hairs of those determined to keep the unions out no matter what.

Mostly set in 1929 with two short portions in 2005, the novel is told from various characters' points of view. The multiplicity of characters, from Ella May to her daughter, from the wealthy wife of a mill owner to a violent sheriff's deputy, from a black activist to a broken man haunted by his past, and many more, shows the events of the novel from many different perspectives, highlighting the way that so many different people converged on Gaston County. This same multiplicity made it hard to follow the story as it switched from one person to another to another, sometimes quite far from the main plot thread. Eventually the threads all converged but until that point, the narrative structure gave it a choppy feel. While the history here is incredibly important to the story, it often drove the novel to the exclusion of the human story. History has covered the general story of unions and the conditions that led to them pretty thoroughly but the story of Ella May herself has faded into obscurity. Unfortunately, Ella May didn't quite come to life here either, portrayed as she was first as an unthinking pawn of the union and later as a martyr to their cause rather than the complete person she must have been. Her personal story, the things that made her more than just the singer, are sometimes told, not shown, in the novel but are almost never fully explored, lessening the emotional impact of this woman's life and her struggle. It must have taken heaps of courage to stand up for her children and herself, as well as for her black neighbors, who were not being welcomed into the union fold, but somehow this courage is only viewed at a far remove and not close and viscerally for the reader. I think perhaps the message overwhelmed the story here, which is a shame because there's quite a story to be told and usually Cash has the chops to pull it off. The writing itself is well done despite the stumbling block of the structure and the story is an important one, if incredibly bleak. Readers who like their fiction to confront injustice will still want to read this even if the emotional punch isn't quite there. ( )
  whitreidtan | Jun 6, 2018 |
MMD rec?

I really liked this a lot. Reading about textile mills in NC in 1929 shouldn’t be interesting. Race relations in 1929. The differences for white people when you have money and when you don’t. There are so many characters in this book, and they all have a story to tell.

Ella May has four children, no husband and works in a mill for $9 week. She works and lives among people of color. She gets involved with the textile union organizing in a nearby city - she is an unlikely leader but she is clearly genuine. She is fatally shot some 4 1/2 months later while going to a union rally. Her children are sent to an orphanage (youngest taken by the minister).

Kate Macadam and Ella May are mothers
Lilly Wiggins and Claire Macadam are daughters
Hampton (Negro, union organizer) and Brother (white, alcoholic, causes Ella’s husband to be evicted from town)

I liked that the story felt real and told of a very tough life, but didn’t seem melodramatic. It didn’t romanticize Claire or Kate - they had their own problems and doubts. Switching from character to character really enriched the story that was told - it wasn’t just about union organizing but about life in the South in 1929. ( )
  BeckiMarsh | May 2, 2018 |
The Last Ballad is the true story of Ella May Wiggins, a young mother of 5 children, who worked in the textile mill in 1929 and became the voice of the union struggle for workers’ rights. Ella only earned $9 a week working nights at the mill, unable to stay home to care for her ill children. Her husband ran off, and she lived as a single parent in Stumptown, depending on the help of her poor neighbors to care for her children while she worked grueling hours at the mill.

Cash’s story of Wiggins and her involvement with the formation of the union is a fascinating, often-ignored piece of history. The book uses multiple perspectives, which is a useful technique to show the determination of the grassroots efforts of the labor movement and why unions were the only answer for many people with no other options. This book is important and Ella’s story needs to be told; however, it’s over-researched, and Cash often drifted into tangents of historical information or recitation of timelines that pulled me out of the story. Also, the outcome is revealed early in the book, which deflated the powerful ending.

The Last Ballad is good, but not great. I knew what was coming, since Cash told me from the beginning, so most of the story was just watching the events unfold. The ending was gentle and heartbreaking, which almost redeemed the slow middle.

I really enjoyed another novel of Cash’s, A Land More Kind Than Home, so although The Last Ballad fell flat for me, I still look forward to his subsequent books.
Many thanks to Edelweiss and William Morrow for the advance copy in exchange for my honest review. ( )
  ErickaS | May 2, 2018 |
Showing 1-5 of 29 (next | show all)
Inspired by the events of an actual textile-mill strike in 1929, Cash (This Dark Road to Mercy, 2014, etc.) creates a vivid picture of one woman’s desperation... Although it is initially a bit difficult to keep so many points of view straight, it is satisfying to see them all connect. It’s refreshing that Cash highlights the struggles of often forgotten heroes and shows how crucial women and African-Americans were in the fight for workers’ rights.

A heartbreaking and beautifully written look at the real people involved in the labor movement.
Powerful and poignant, North Carolina author Wiley Cash’s third and best novel tells the story of Ella May...Beyond Ella’s personal story, this is the very best kind of historical novel — one whose events are largely nonfiction, and whose characters, invented though they may be, probably closely resemble the souls who did walk the Earth during that time. Cash is a fine and subtle writer, who tells an American story painful in the way the most authentic American stories are — replete with personal, political, sexual, racial and class strife, yet redeemed by gritty individual and community faith in a better, fairer world.
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For my daughters Early Elizabeth and Juniper Rose
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Ella May knew she wasn't pretty, had always known it.
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"The eagerly awaited next novel from the author of the New York Times bestselling A Land More Kind Than Home about a young mother desperately trying to hold her family together in the years before the Great Depression, a haunting and moving story of cowardice, courage and sacrifice"--… (more)

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