Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Review: The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash

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.

For more information about Wiley Cash and the book, check out his webpage, like him on Facebook, and follow him on Twitter. Check out the book's Goodreads page, follow the rest of the blog tour, or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.
Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and William Morrow for sending me a copy of the book for review.

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