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The Last Ballad: A Novel by Wiley Cash

The Last Ballad: A Novel

by Wiley Cash

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1912661,769 (3.88)58
  1. 00
    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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Showing 1-5 of 26 (next | show all)
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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 |
As Wiley Cash points out in his author notes, the mills strikes in Gaston County, NC during the summer of 1929 aren't well known even within the state. I don't recall ever hearing about them or of Ella Mae Wiggins.

Cash choose to use many voices to tell the story of the violent summer of 1929. Perhaps he used too many. I found myself having to page back and refresh my memory of how some of the characters fit into what had already happened, which distracted me from the story. All the narratives are in third person except letters written by Ella's oldest daughter, which were in first person and dated 2005. I've gotten burned out on this multiple narrator, back-and-forth-in-time schtick, but Cash shows that it does have its uses, and I thought the ending chapter was a fitting use of both tools.

I've been trying to figure out why the book just felt so much longer than its 300 pages and why I didn't connect with it more. I finally came up with two possible reasons. The first is that the constantly changing POV kept me from feeling connected to any single character long enough to feel more than mild curiosity about what would happen to them next. The second is that Cash presents Wiggins as a hero, and I'm not sure I agree with that assessment. No doubt she was a martyr in the true definition of being someone who was killed because of her beliefs and ideas, but hero? When I think of a hero, I think of someone who consciously chooses to take action or face danger or who accomplishes some special and rare achievement. Bearing in mind that I know nothing about the real Ella Mae Wiggins and can only go by the fictional version Cash has created in her likeness, I can say that I think Wiggins was hard-working, loyal, kind, and determined. She was one of those tough-tender, capable women who don't ask for much and make do with less and would be a stereotype except I've known too many rural southern women who fit the description. What I don't get from this character is that she was really proactive about anything. She just sort of falls in with people who assume she's going to do what they want, so she does, whether it's hooking up with the good-for-nothing ex-husband or the good-for-nothing baby-daddy or the Northern union organizers. I also couldn't quite wrap my head around how she went from fretting about losing her job in the only mill that would have her (so she knew there was no other jobs for her anywhere) and a vague curiosity about unions to agreeing to work for the union in one day. And to be a "leader" in less than six months of activity with them? Seemed a little more like she was a convenient pawn for the union rather than a leader of it. I guess I would have liked to see her think a little harder and ask more questions rather than just go along with whoever was being nicest to her at that moment. (The fact that the AFLCIO couldn't be bothered to spell her name right when they erected a grave marker 40 years after her death didn't do much to convince me of the sincerity of their loyalty back to her.)

If I had a time machine, I'd like to take this book back to the 1980s and read it to my grandmother. In 1929, she would have been an adult with 15 years or more behind her as a spinner. I think she was divorced by then, so would also have been a single mother working in a small town mill. Although I don't recall her ever mentioning unions at all, it would have been interesting to get her POV on this story.
( )
  Yaaresse | Apr 24, 2018 |
Well written story of Ella Mae Wiggins and her death at the Loray Mill Strike in 1929. I had a hard time keeping involved with it at times as I wasn't that interested in the work done by the union...but the home life & working conditions that these people suffered and the strength that must have took was very thought provoking and inspiring ( )
  justablondemoment | Feb 25, 2018 |
Based on areal person, this novel takes the reader back to the 1920’s rural North Carolina where the poor are basically “owned” by the fabric mills. There’s no hope, only a bleak future. Ella May, a mill employee becomes convinced the only way out is to align with the Unions. Bleakness plus hope underlie the entire novel and create a picture of a strong-willed woman willing to fight for her future and those around her. ( )
  brangwinn | Feb 13, 2018 |
Showing 1-5 of 26 (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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