Book Review

The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash

Earlier this year, I impatiently looked forward to the next novel by Wiley Cash. So you can imagine my excitement to hear that he would be the keynote speaker at the NC Writers Network 2017 Fall Conference. The fact that his next book would be published right before the conference made it even more of a reason not to miss his keynote address. I really enjoyed the conference, learned a lot, and met some amazing writers. I ordered “The Last Ballad” from my local bookstore, Page 158 Books in Wake Forest. We all need to support our local bookstores. They are so valuable and important to our communities. Wiley Cash was kind enough to sign it and I was thrilled to hear his address to the conference, a win-win. 

The novel portrays the life of Ella Mae Wiggins based on true accounts of her life. Ella Mae was a special woman who was ahead of her time. She fought for many rights including the right to be home with her children when they were sick and to make a fair wage in her job at the local mill. She was not a radical communist as some parts of society portrayed her at the time of the Loray Mill strike which took place in Gastonia, North Carolina in 1929. The fact that I, a native North Carolinian, have never heard of this strike and social unrest in the early 1900’s seems unbelievable to me. No state likes to advertise their messy history, so these type of events seem to be swept under the table of history and not widely discussed.

Ella Mae was a poor young woman working in Tennessee with her parents when they both died and left her with no one at the age of 16. With a small amount of money in her pocket, she drew the interest of a swindler who took her money and her virginity. After she became pregnant they moved to find work at the textile mills in South Carolina. Struggling with her loss and uneducated she found work in several mills, but was left alone to provide for herself and her children. Living in a shack, working 70 hours a week at her job, she took a chance and went to hear a union organizer. From there she would become one of the most influential people in the struggle to organize the workers, both white and black. She wrote and performed songs, organized her fellow workers and attended rallies. The mill owners and their minions did not like the largely Northern group of union organizers who came down South to stir up trouble and they fought hard to put down the organizer’s ideas by using fists, clubs, guns and other ruthless tactics. 

Ella Mae’s story, while true, is a fictional account written by the wonderful storyteller, Wiley Cash. His novel, as usual, provide a vivid picture of life in North Carolina when this was taking place. You can feel Ella Mae’s pain and we mourn along with her losses. You can’t go wrong reading any of Wiley Cash’s books. The stories they tell and characters you meet will stay with you long after the last page is turned. A solid 5 stars!

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