The Last Ballad
William Morrow 2017, 384 pp., $16.60
Wiley’s Cash’s third novel, The Last Ballad, confirms him as a major voice in contemporary American fiction, and especially among those writers with their eyes on the plight of America’s working poor. The true story he fictionalizes takes place in Gastonia, North Carolina, during the Loray Textile Mill strike, which galvanized the region’s attention during the spring and summer of 1929. Many scholars continue to view the Loray strike as one of the most significant strikes in Southern labor history, which ended in violence and included the deaths of the local sheriff, Orville Aderholt, and a textile worker turned labor organizer and balladeer, Ella May Wiggins. According to the afterword, Cash himself never heard of Wiggins or the 1929 Loray strike that happened in his home town, until he ventured off to graduate school. This reviewer similarly discovered the strike only in graduate school; incredibly, my grandfather, who helped build an expansion of the Loray Mill after it was purchased by the Firestone Corporation in the 1930s, claimed to have no memory of Ella May Wiggins or the horrific events chronicled in the novel. After reading The Last Ballad, I have a better understanding of the collective shame that buried this story for posterity—and of our debt to Wiley Cash for exhuming it.
The book’s central figure, Ella May Wiggins, is representative of her generation—and of ours—as a single mother of four children, struggling to accomplish the balancing act of providing materially for her family while caring for them emotionally and spiritually, all within a system that is rigged against them. A part of Cash’s tremendous accomplishment in The Last Ballad is how thoroughly he shows that rigged system to be comprised of human faces and an accumulation of individual choices. The novel is told in numerous points of view, including those of Ella May Wiggins, members of the McAdam family (owners of the McAdamville mill just miles from Loray mill in Gastonia), and Hampton Haywood, a Pullman porter who is tapped to help Ella May Wiggins integrate the strike. No class of people represented in Cash’s novel is above reproach or without the possibility of redemption. But that redemption comes only when they are able uplift themselves without excluding others, especially those more vulnerable than themselves. Cash shows us that the tragedy of the failed Loray strike results from its opponents succeeding in sowing discontent among its ranks, stirring up fears of communism and racial equality, and convincing the white millhands and their neighbors to accept skin color, national origin, or political affiliation as the limits of common humanity. And so, as is true with all the best history, Cash’s novel not only opens a window on the past but also speaks a warning to our own time.
The action begins seven miles from Gastonia in Bessemer City’s American Mill No. 2, where Ella May works 72 hours a week for roughly $9, assuming her pay has not been shorted by the hank clock, a device that clocks her out any time one of the 100-plus threads of yarn breaks on her watch. Meanwhile, one of her daughters is at home burning with fever, in the care of her older sister, Lilly, whom Ella May relies upon to care for the younger siblings. Against the advice of her peers, Ella May decides to attend a union rally at the Loray Mill in Gastonia, where she is convinced to tell her story and to sing her first ballad, immediately propelling her to local celebrity status and effectively ending her career at American Mill No. 2.
Because American Mill No. 2 is an integrated mill, one of few of its kind in the region, and because Ella May lives in Stumptown, an African American mill village, her closest friends are “colored,” and it becomes essential to her that the labor strike at the Loray become integrated. The overwhelming majority of mill laborers reject that demand outright, and even the northern representative of the union, Fred Beal, is unwilling to support it because he accurately reads the Southern sentiments on race.
To help illuminate how those racist and nativist feelings are exploited by the mill owners, Cash quotes from Gaston Transom-Times advertisements placed by the Council of Concerned Citizens of Gaston County:
“What will it take for us to stand up and rid this city and this state of the threat of bloody red Bolshevism? Violence? We’ve witnessed violence… Will we wait to act until our Constitution has been destroyed, our churches pulled down upon us, our classrooms and courtrooms taken over by self-professed godless men like Fred Beal? Will we wait to act until our children learn to eat and play and sleep alongside the Negro? Will we wait to act until our very voices cry out for mercy in a Russian tongue?” (p. 217).
Another Cash from the western North Carolina Piedmont, W. J. Cash, witnessed such fascist thought firsthand and chronicled it in his monumental work The Mind of the South (1941). In that work, W. J. Cash explains how Southern poor whites were manipulated by the white elite, or “man at the center” mill barons descended from the planters before them, and how the development of a class consciousness was limited by what Cash called a “proto-Dorian bond,” which inclined poor whites to identify with their white overlords rather than with poor blacks who were even more brutally oppressed. Whether Wiley Cash is related by blood to Wilbur Joseph Cash, I cannot say, but he is most certainly his spiritual descendant. And in The Last Ballad he performs that rare feat of telling the hard truth about the underbelly of his region’s past, while offering us an authentic hero who championed the good.
George Hovis has published fiction and critical essays in a number of publications, including The Carolina Quarterly, Mississippi Quarterly, Southern Cultures, The Fourth River, New Madrid, and The Southern Literary Journal. His book Vale of Humility treats contemporary North Carolina fiction. He is professor of English at SUNY Oneonta.