book review, Books, Ella May Wiggins, fiction, Gastonia, Gastonia NC, historical fiction, history, Loray Mill, mill, mill history, NC, North Carolina, Southern fiction, Southern history, strike, textile workers, The Last Ballad, union, Wiley Cash, William Morrow
When I write a book review, I always start by asking myself, “How did this book make you feel?”
For Southern author Wiley Cash’s forthcoming novel The Last Ballad, the answer is not an easy one. The story is haunting yet beautiful – a story of a brave, powerful woman who finds herself at the center of the Loray Mill strike for worker’s rights in Gastonia, North Carolina.
Loray had been built in 1900 and touted as the largest textile mill in the world, and although local investors had funded it, northern interests took note of the abundance of cheap labor, the proximity to raw cotton, the railroads that now crisscrossed the South like lashings.
The year is 1929 and Ella May Wiggins works 12 hours, six days a week for just $9. It is never enough to feed her four children.
When I read Ella’s story, I felt angry. I felt a sense of familiarity, because I know people in our world right now, 88 years later, who still act as if people are not equal, who still ignore the fact that everyone deserves the same pay, opportunities, recognition, and rights. I felt despair because the three things one strike leader said they needed then are three things we still do not have today.
What this country needs is radical transformation…Worker’s rights. Gender equality. Integration.
So how are we doing?
- Integration: American schools integrated, with much pain and tragedy, starting in the 1950s. But today, our schools across America are nearly just as segregated due to neighborhood lines. This has led to a vast difference in school achievement scores, poverty, diversity, and the quality of education. As for religious integration, our churches are rarely integrated, at least not in the South. At times in my travels north or to larger cities, I see more religious integration, but here in North Carolina, churches are either Black or White, and many people say they feel “uncomfortable” going to church with someone of a different race. As for neighborhoods and communities, these are often only integrated by force of socioeconomics. A poor White family might live alongside a poor Black family. A rich Black family might live in an affluent neighborhood. But these are the exceptions to the rule.
- Worker’s rights: We have shorter work weeks, shorter hours, overtime pay. But minimum wage is too low for many to do what Ella could not do – provide food and basic needs for their children. 88 years later, this has not changed.
- Gender equality: Don’t get me started. Women still make 75 cents for every dollar a man makes. And it’s worse when you factor in how race affects pay.
These issues make The Last Ballad – which tells a nearly 90-year-old story – incredibly, and sadly, relevant to our time. Not to mention this story also had “fake news” and a man calling Ella a “nasty woman.”
“She’s not the virtuous kind,” Guyon said… “Not like these fine women here tonight.”
“No, she ain’t virtuous,” Epps said. “She’s loose. The kind of woman who’ll let a man get away with anything. Just a nasty woman.”
Perhaps most relevant though – and this book was written before our country’s recent strain over Confederate statues – was a reference to a “weekend-long jamboree to honor Confederate veterans that was scheduled to take place just a few miles away in Charlotte.” Hampton, a Black character from the North, had “never seen or heard of any celebrations like this.”
It seemed to him that the South now reveled in loss as if it had been a victory.
If you are still having trouble understanding, as a White person, why you should care, when the South’s history happened so long ago – why you should care about people poorer than you or people of other races, look to this conversation between two White women in the novel. Donna and Claire have just taken a ritzy tour through Washington, D.C. They are the daughters of mill owners, and Claire is readying to marry Paul, whose family owns a (former slave) plantation in Wilmington.
…Everyone lives in the [mill] village together, Donna. It’s like a big family.”
“And you and your parents live in the big house that looks down on the rest of the family,” Donna said. “Just like on Paul’s parents’ plantation. I bet they viewed their slaves as family too.”
“That’s not fair, Donna,” Claire said. “And you know it. Paul’s mother and father had nothing to do with that. That was years ago.”
“Look down at that diamond on your finger, Claire,” Donna had said. “You can thank Paul’s family for that. All of them.
Regardless of whether you or your family “had nothing to do with” slavery or oppression due to your money or status and other people’s lack thereof – regardless of whether you’ve had to “work for everything you have” – you still must realize that so much of what we all have in this country was built on slave labor, and so much of what rich people have now is from years of capitalizing on cheap Black and White labor. That labor pays for their diamond rings. And it gilds the doors on Trump’s towers.
I could not write about this book without writing about the things that made me angry. But I must just as emphatically say that this book also made me hopeful.
Many of the things Ella and the union fought for are actually better. But we still have so much work to do. We still need to fight every day in small and large ways to make things fairer for other people. We still need to quit thinking “Me first.”
Wiley Cash’s beautiful metaphors, intricate understanding of class and race inequality, deep research of North Carolina’s complex and heartbreaking history – all mix together to create a story that moves the reader’s heart and spirit. Everyone should read this book, especially White people. I don’t know if rich people – today’s mill owners – will care. But maybe this story will at least make them think. Maybe it will convict them. Maybe, like one character in the book, some piece of their humanity can be saved.
Until then, we – Wiley Cash, fighters of justice, speakers of truth, and myself – will keep doing what is right:
Seeking justice and inspiring humanity and bringing together people of all races…
Want to go?
Check Wiley Cash’s website for event dates (book signings, readings, etc.), but I will be at this one:
Time: Thu, Oct 5, 2017 6:30pm and Fri, Oct 6, 2017 7:30pm
Location: Loray Mill Event Hall, 300 S Firestone St #200 Gastonia, NC
Description: Join Wiley for a reading and book signing at the Loray Mill, site of the historic 1929 textile strike on which The Last Ballad is based.