The Great Alone

The Last Ballad

by Wiley Cash

Overview: 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.

Debbie Weiss (07/13/18): The story of Ella May Wiggins is similar to the story of Norma Rae, which was made into a movie starring Sallie Field in 1979. Ella was certainly an interesting person who rises to the occasion to help lead the fight for unionization and desegration of the union in the mills of North Carolina in the 1920's. I admired her work ethic and the love that she had for her children. In stories like these, I always wonder what drives a person to take up a cause and fight for something they believe in --- that can be dangerous --- that keeps them away from their family, especially their children. Perhaps these people see the greater good and are willing to sacrifice. Not everyone can do this.
Rating: ***

Judy Stanton (06/14/18): Set in the Appalachian foothills of North Carolina in 1929, Wiley Cash's The Last Ballad is based on the true story of Ella May Wiggins. A mill worker whose wages barely supported her four children, Ella May was unique in living with and befriending fellow Negro workers. So, it wasn't surprising that when she was persuaded to join a union to make change that she fought for having the union integrated. It is a sad tale of poverty, prejudice and power in the South, with some interesting twists and turns that keep the reader engaged. Wiley Cash does a good job of describing the conditions and telling the story from several people's points of view. A good read and an interesting picture of the times. 4-.
Rating: ****-

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