‘The Last Ballad’ tells the story of Ella May Wiggins, a young woman who became a symbol for workers’ rights in America in the late 1920s. This novel was inspired by the 1929 strike at the Loray Textile mill in North Carolina and the real Ella May Wiggins.
Ella May, like many young people at the time, was lured from the mountains to work in the textile mills, with the promise of riches. She was married at 16 and she and her husband hoped for a better life.
At the start of the story, Ella May has had 5 children, one of whom has died. Her husband has left. She works a 72 hour week over 6 days and barely makes enough money to feed her family. She has been threatened with the loss of her only means of support because she missed a shift to look after her sick child (she dreads losing another). When she receives a leaflet about a union meeting at the Loray mill where workers are striking, she dares to hope that her life can be better. She attends the meeting and becomes an important part of the union movement.
But the mill owners and politicians are very resistant and coerce the newspapers to publish stories likening the union movement to Bolshevism spreading in Europe. So interactions between the strikers and officials can’t help but get ugly.
The story is told from a number of different viewpoints – Ella May, union leaders, mill owners etc to show the situation from all sides.
As with all of Wiley Cash’s novels, this one was beautifully written. The story was incredibly powerful and very sad in parts.
We have come a long way since 1929 due in part to the bravery of people like Ella May, but we still have a long way to go. There are still people who don’t earn a living wage and corporate greed only seems to grow.
I love Wiley Cash’s writing and can’t wait to read his next novel.