Review: The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash

Title: The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash
Publisher: William Morrow
Genre: Historical, Literary Fiction
Length: 384 pages
Book Rating: B+

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through Edelweiss


The New York Times bestselling author of the celebrated A Land More Kind Than Home and This Dark Road to Mercy returns with this eagerly awaited new novel, set in the Appalachian foothills of North Carolina in 1929 and inspired by actual events. The chronicle of an ordinary woman’s struggle for dignity and her rights in a textile mill, The Last Ballad is a moving tale of courage in the face of oppression and injustice, with the emotional power of Ron Rash’s Serena, Dennis Lehane’s The Given Day, and the unforgettable films Norma Rae and Silkwood.

Twelve times a week, twenty-eight-year-old Ella May Wiggins makes the two-mile trek to and from her job on the night shift at American Mill No. 2 in Bessemer City, North Carolina. The insular community considers the mill’s owners—the newly arrived Goldberg brothers—white but not American and expects them to pay Ella May and other workers less because they toil alongside African Americans like Violet, Ella May’s best friend. While the dirty, hazardous job at the mill earns Ella May a paltry nine dollars for seventy-two hours of work each week, it’s the only opportunity she has. Her no-good husband, John, has run off again, and she must keep her four young children alive with whatever work she can find.

When the union leaflets begin circulating, Ella May has a taste of hope, a yearning for the better life the organizers promise. But the mill owners, backed by other nefarious forces, claim the union is nothing but a front for the Bolshevik menace sweeping across Europe. To maintain their control, the owners will use every means in their power, including bloodshed, to prevent workers from banding together. On the night of the county’s biggest rally, Ella May, weighing the costs of her choice, makes up her mind to join the movement—a decision that will have lasting consequences for her children, her friends, her town—indeed all that she loves.

Seventy-five years later, Ella May’s daughter Lilly, now an elderly woman, tells her nephew about his grandmother and the events that transformed their family. Illuminating the most painful corners of their history, she reveals, for the first time, the tragedy that befell Ella May after that fateful union meeting in 1929.

Intertwining myriad voices, Wiley Cash brings to life the heartbreak and bravery of the now forgotten struggle of the labor movement in early twentieth-century America—and pays tribute to the thousands of heroic women and men who risked their lives to win basic rights for all workers. Lyrical, heartbreaking, and haunting, this eloquent novel confirms Wiley Cash’s place among our nation’s finest writers.


Rich with historical details and based on real life events, The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash shines a much needed light on the  National Textile Workers Union attempt to secure better wages and working conditions for textile workers in the south.

In 1929, single mother Ella May Wiggins works twelve hours a day, six days a week at American Mill No. 2. Although she relies on the kindness of her neighbors in Stumpton to help watch over her four children while she is working, her $9 a week paycheck barely covers rent and food for her and her family. After attending a union rally in nearby Gastonia where workers at the Loray Mill are being evicted from their homes after going on strike, Ella becomes an unlikely spokeswoman for the union when she wins over the crowd with her moving life story and recently penned ballad, The Mill Mother’s Lament.  Over the next several months, Ella and union organizer Sophia Blevin continue their efforts to integrate Ella’s African-American neighbors and co-workers into the National Textile Workers Union. In the deeply segregated South where minorities and women have no voice or rights, Ella’s work with the union is dangerous and her attempts to include African-Americans in the fight for better wages culminates in heartbreak.

Growing up in poverty in the NC mountains,  Ella marries young and follows her husband, John, from one mill town to another. After the death of their young son, John abandons her and their children and Ella cannot find work anywhere except American Mill No. 2 where whites and African Americans work alongside one another. After coming close to losing her job when she stays home to care for her sick baby, Ella is drawn to the union rally in hopes of improving pay and working conditions for herself and her fellow workers. She is pragmatic and deals with every hardship that comes her way with stoicism yet Ella’s love for her children is fierce.

While Ella is the central figure in the unfolding story, the chapters alternate between various points of view.  Daughter Lilly’s perspective takes place in the present as she shares memories of those long ago days with her nephew, Edwin.  Verchel Park’s acquaintance with Ella’s former husband John has unintended consequences that he only realizes long after their occurrence. The wife of a wealthy mill owner from a neighboring town, Katherine McAdam is drawn to Ella through a shared loss and their unlikely friendship proves to be life saving. African-American train porter Hampton Haywood’s family fled Mississippi in fear for their lives and although he now lives in New York, he cannot resist the call to help the union organizers in the South.  Disgraced police officer Albert Roach is instrumental in setting in motion the final confrontation that ends with a devastating loss.

The Last Ballad is a meticulously researched novel with a thought-provoking and poignant storyline. Based on factual events,  Wiley Cash brings the characters, setting and time period in this compelling story vibrantly to life.  Ella May Wiggins’ struggles to provide for her family are positively gut wrenching and her impressive efforts to improve working conditions and higher wages are captivating.  I absolutely loved and highly recommend this extraordinary novel that highlights a mostly forgotten yet vastly important time in the history of the labor movement.

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