“The Last Ballad”; by Wiley Cash; 2017, HarperCollins Publishers; 375 pages.
The American South is a minefield of emotions. It’s a land of hope, faith and joy intermingled with hatred, anger, and sometimes unspeakable violence. It’s a place where understanding and common sense can be overwhelmed by confusion and ignorance — often sparked by a clash of outrageous fortune, profound poverty and overt racism. It’s populated by people capable of heroism and villainy.
And it’s a culture of human conflict well known to author Wiley Cash.
Cash, who grew up in Gastonia, North Carolina explores this murky and troubling territory again in his third novel, “The Last Ballad.” Perhaps no North Carolina writer today understands the dark human nature always at ground level waiting to rise and envelope the better nature of rural Piedmont and mountain residents better than Cash. This underbelly of sorrow and horror was the driving force in his celebrated best-selling first novel, 2013’s “A Land More Kind than Home,” which is set in the North Carolina mountains. That exploration of cruelty and innocence was based on a true event. “The Last Ballad,” released in the fall of 2017, is also constructed upon a disturbing story from state history that occurred in Gastonia just prior to The Great Depression — an incident widely reported at the time but largely a mystery to modern North Carolinians.
“The Last Ballad” is a fictional account of a signature incident in U.S. labor movement history occurring as organizers targeted North Carolina’s expanse of textile mills in the years after World War I. Union organizers from the northeast, largely comprised of men and women affiliated with communist politics, actively recruited forlorn and mistreated southern mill laborers who often toiled 12 hours a day, six days a week for meager wages under what today would be called sweatshop conditions. Mill families sometimes dwelled in glorified shacks or run-down homes in villages established by wealthy mill owners to be self-sustaining and essentially keep workers in debt, much like indentured servants in agriculture.
Cash tells the story of a defining incident that framed the tensions and violence of the time. “The Last Ballad” is about events surrounding the strike at Loray Mills in Gastonia and the months and days leading to the death of Ella May Wiggins, a singer, songwriter, mill worker and champion for workers rights and racial equality. Through her voice and actions, Wiggins becomes a local and significant leader in the labor movement, which made her a an object of scorn to those who supported the mill owners or were violently opposed to the northern communist members of the National Textile Workers Union. Because she was white and lived among African-American mill workers and attempted to integrate the union, she also became a lightning rod during the Jim Crow period of not only racial discrimination but vehement racism.
Few in North Carolina have heard much about the short but tragic life and violent death of Ella May Wiggins. The North Carolina Archives and North Carolina Museum of History can provide information or photos, but it’s not a story taught in schools today or one to take much pride in reporting. It’s a blight on North Carolina’s past. Even longtime North Carolina residents are surprised by the rough-and-tumble history associated with textile manufacturing in North Carolina in the early 20th century. It was a shadowy time of unrest and poverty across the South and North Carolina. Alamance County wasn’t immune. Its history in textile manufacturing equaled or surpassed Gastonia in terms of successful business operations. And while there were a number of mill owners willing to treat workers decently, many were not. As a result, Labor unrest became more common after 1929. It happened at multiple mills located around Alamance County in 1934 and led the governor to call in the National Guard to restore order. Ultimately an attempt was made to blow up two mills, something known as the Burlington Dynamite Plot.
The Loray Mill strike remains the most famous in North Carolina and Cash deftly constructs a narrative around it. Using multiple voices, many of them heroic women, the story moves forward, the tension in Gastonia, Gaston County and its communities is palpable. Loray Mill, the largest in the South, is at the epicenter, it’s where the union organizers headquartered and strikers lived in tents. It’s also where most of the shouting, threats and violence occurs.
Because it’s a novel, not a work of non-fiction, Cash is free to weave this true story from multiple perspectives through characters both real and imagined. He hides the true names of Wiggins’ children and perhaps other key players. Cash does remain true to the critical facts of the story. Ella May Wiggins was a working mother of five children all born before she turned 29 years old. She toiled 12-hour shifts six days a week at American Mill No. 2 in Bessemer City, North Carolina where she was paid $9 a week. Her children, as were the children of many mill families in those days, were starving. She worked to integrate the union because she believed white and black workers were exactly the same and had at least one thing in common — they were poor. She also wrote and sang one of the most important songs to the U.S. labor movement, one recorded decades later by Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie, “A Mill Mother’s Lament.” She was shot and killed on Sept. 14, 1929 by a group of counter protesters in Gastonia, capping a period of escalating violence in that community that also claimed the life of one of Gastonia’s most prominent public figures and peacemakers. In death she became a martyr for U.S. labor.
“The Last Ballad” is a tough book. It contains the blunt language and epithets common to that time in the South — and sadly still used today in some corners. It’s full of coarse and sometimes morally bereft characters who refuse to comprehend their own failings and the changing course that would reshape the economic future. And there is very little redemption for those who commit atrocities or those attempting to atone for their misdeeds.
In that regard Cash has constructed a reality that’s all too familiar and real, but equally hard to swallow.
The Mill Mother’s Lament
We leave our homes in the morning,
We kiss our children good-bye,
While we slave for the bosses,
Our children scream and cry.
And when we draw our money,
Our grocery bills to pay,
Not a cent to spend for clothing,
Not a cent to lay away.
And on that very evening
Our little son will say:
“I need some shoes, Mother,
And so does Sister May.”
How it grieves the heart of a mother,
You everyone must know.
But we can’t buy for our children,
Our wages are too low.
It is for our little children,
That seems to us so dear,
But for us nor them, dear workers,
The bosses do not care.
But understand, all workers,
Our union they do fear.
Let’s stand together, workers,
And have a union here.