The Last Ballad: A Novel

The Last Ballad: A Novel

by Wiley Cash


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Winner of the Southern Book Prize for Literary Fiction

Named a Best Book of 2017 by the Chicago Public Library and the American Library Association

“Wiley Cash reveals the dignity and humanity of people asking for a fair shot in an unfair world.”

- Christina Baker Kline, author of A Piece of the World and Orphan Train

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780062313126
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 06/05/2018
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 101,010
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.80(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Wiley Cash is the award-winning and New York Times bestselling author of A Land More Kind Than Home. A native of North Carolina, he has held residency positions at Yaddo and The MacDowell Colony and teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Southern New Hampshire University. He and his wife live in Wilmington, North Carolina.

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The Last Ballad 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 25 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ballad is a beautifully written story with vivid desvrition of the early labor movement,exloited workers, and southern mindless racial hatred. An excellent bbook .
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Enlightening and sad. Wiley Cash writes with grace and truth.
bookchickdi More than 1 year ago
Although Wiley Cash's newest novel, The Last Ballad, is set in 1929, the themes of the struggling working class, the politics of rich versus poor, racism and sexism are as relevant today as they were then. Young Ella May Wiggins is 28 years-old, a mother of four with a husband who deserts her. She works the night shift at the local textile mill, making less than $10 a week, which is not enough to feed her children. When Ella had to miss to a shift to care for sickly daughter she is called into the owner's office, accused of being lazy and threatened with dismissal by a man who shows no compassion for Ella's situation. Ella relies on nine-year-old daughter Lily and her friend and neighbor Violet to help care for the other younger children while she works. She is tired of not being paid enough for her work and when a union comes to town, Ella works up to the courage to attend a meeting. She meets two women who are driving people to the meeting, and when Ella sings them a song she wrote about her situation, they convince her to sing for the crowd. Ella's beautiful voice and song move the crowd so much that Ella becomes a symbol of the labor movement. Ella agrees to work for the union, and pushes for the union to include the black factory workers in their organization efforts. The factory where she works is one of the few that has black and white workers on the line. The factory owners accuse the workers of being Communists, and indeed it is the Communist party that helps to organize the labor movement. The workers are threatened with violence and forcibly evicted from their factory-owned homes when they dare to try and organize a union. The tension rachets up as the workers appear to be on a collison course with the factory owners. When a black union organizer, a Pullman porter named Hampton, comes to town to help Ella organize her neighbors, he is forced to reconcile a past he tried to forget. Cash's writing is so powerful, and he conveys so much with his words, like this: "Pretty took the will to be so and the money to do it and the time to see it and the sleep to maintain it, and Ella didn't have any of those things." and: "But no matter how long the (Goldberg) brothers and their families lived in town, they never forgot the first night in their new home when some time before dawn they awoke to the orange glow of the six-foot-tall wooden cross afire in the front yard. They also never forgot the next morning's visit from the Christian Ladies' Association, a group largely comprised of the wives of local ministers. The women appeared unannounced that Saturday morning, cakes and flowers and casseroles in hand. They walked single-file up the walk past the blackened grass and the charred, smoking remains of the cross their husbands had left behind." I'm not sure that reading The Last Ballad made me hopeful that things are better in our country or sad that not enough progress has been made. Cash based his book on a real incident, and Ella Wiggins was a real woman who took on factory owners in Gaston, North Carolina. Like the strong female characters in the movies Norma Rae (based on a real woman, Crystal Lee Sutton) and Karen Silkwood in Silkwood, Ella Wiggins is an unforgettable woman looking to make a more just world. We need more of them.
SheTreadsSoftly More than 1 year ago
The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash is a remarkable, very highly recommended novel inspired by real historical events, the strike at the Loray Mills, and based on a real person. Set in the Appalachian foothills of North Carolina in 1929, The Last Ballad Tells the story of twenty-eight-year-old Ella May Wiggins. Ella May earns nine dollars for a seventy-two hour week working as a spinner on the night shift at American Mill No. 2 in Bessemer City. On this paltry sum she is expected to feed and clothe her four living children. Ella May's husband has run off and she's pregnant again. When Ella May comes across a leaflet for a union that advocates a minimum wage and a forty-hour workweek, she holds on to it and dares to hope for a better life. She attends a union rally in nearby Gastonia, hoping for more information about joining the union. At the rally Ella May is asked to speak about mill conditions, and, after saying a few words, she also sings a song she wrote, A Mother's Lament, that instantly gives a voice to the struggle and propels her into the forefront of the labor movement. Cash tells the story through Ella May's voice, as well as through a series of other people involved in the events of 1929. Her story is also told in a letter written by her daughter Lilly in 2005. Lilly is now an elderly woman who wants her nephew to know about their family history, especially his grandmother. Although Lilly's letter tells us about what will happen early on in the novel, the journey getting to the events is heartbreaking and inspiring. The people involved come to life on the pages. You will feel like you have met these characters, shared their thoughts and concerns, listened to their fears, and, just as in life, some of them have much deeper, abiding concerns than others. This story is a moving tribute to everyone who took up the cause and fought for worker's rights, but especially for those who sacrificed so much for the cause. The Last Ballad is a well-written, eloquent, touching novel that captures the courage and fortitude it takes for someone to face injustice and oppression head-on to try to make a change for the sake of their family. Yes, the fight was for worker's rights, but Ella May was fighting for a cause even closer to her heart, her children and their future. She join the fight for their sake, so she could feed and clothe her family. The stark contrast between the mill owners and those working for them is part of the complete picture created in this novel. I say novel, but it is based on fact, which makes it even more poignant as a novel. Cash's family has a history in the area and connections to mill villages. Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of this book from HarperCollins
Delphimo 11 months ago
The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash displayed a world that I had never noticed. The story centers in the rural area of Gaston County North Carolina around the mills and the people working in the mills. Ella May Wiggins works six days a week for a total of 72 hours at a job where she walks 2 miles to reach and only receives $9.00 for the whole week. With this pittance, she must support her growing family while living in a shack with three children in the black side of town. Wiley Cash pounds out a novel of hardship and misery, but Ella May stands as a beacon of determination in hopes of changing conditions for the mill workers as labor unions attempt to enter the picture. Wiley Cash portrays the characters and setting with dimension and not the flatness of a textbook. Ella May and her friends display boldness and humor. The Last Ballad stands as a glimpse into conditions in the 1920’s that still exist in the 21st Century.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great read
KrittersRamblings More than 1 year ago
Check out the full review at Kritters Ramblings Wiley Cash is known for writing books set in the heart of North Carolina and not showing all of the beautiful pieces but the nitty and the gritty. He doesn't shy away from real life both in the present tense and the past. This book jumps from different points of view, but stays solely in the small towns of North Carolina that at times were barely surviving with the mills in town.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
being a north carolinian, hard and sad, but very well done!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
?iveting tale beautifully told. Cash weaves wonderful and lyrical prose.
Sandy5 More than 1 year ago
My heart broke for Ella May. From the beginning chapters, I realized that Ella May’s life had been hard since day one but her heart was in a good place. With four children to care for and being just thirty, she took this responsibility seriously. Charlie, the man male adult in her life, was a low-life in my opinion and when he left her again, I was happy. She didn’t need that type of individual darkening her already, dark days. What she needed was hope, something that would benefit herself and others like her. Ella May worked the overnight shift. Working six days a week, twelve hours days, this job gave her just enough money to put a roof over her children’s heads. She knew her children were hungry because she, herself was hungry. She wasn’t a proud woman but she loved her children and she was providing for them the best that she could. Ella May works in a yarn factory and when she heard talk about a union, Ella May is intrigued. She heard that if she joins the union, she would earn better pay which would allow her to keep a roof over her family and perhaps better food on her table. Charlie is against the union as he doesn’t believe in white individuals working beside colored individuals. It’s funny because Ella May has been working with colored individuals for years and now, this becomes an issue plus why should she listen to Charlie. Charlie can’t seem to hold down a job himself but he can hold a liquor bottle to his lips real well. Ella May is excited to hear more about the union and as she attends one of its rallies, she is filled with energy as she listens. Within her, a spark is lit. This propels her to make this union her mission, to help individuals get out of their current state of poverty which she believes can be done by joining the union. A dangerous situation for some individuals who are living in the South, in the year 1929. We know how Ella May fares in the end as we read the entries from her oldest daughter Lilly in the novel. She retells the story about her mother, about her mother fight and her love for those around her. Lilly’s recount of her mother’s history showed me how others saw her mother and how she never forgot where she came from. I enjoy reading these types of stories, books from the mountain ranges. This story shows the pride and the struggles that some individuals took to help themselves and others to create a better life. I liked Ella May’s view on life, I think she knew that she couldn’t give her children the best that the world had to offer yet I feel that she gave them much more. She gave them the best that she could, she gave of herself, she showed them the power of love. I enjoyed this novel and I can’t wait to read the other novels that Wiley wrote.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Willey Cash has tapped into historical family roots in authoring this novel of the initial attempt to unionize the textile industry in Gastonia, N.C. For me, this was a very thought provoking reading. The attempt begins with northern union organizers trying to recruit southern textile workers to assist them in forming sufficient numbers to to bring about to bring about a Union chapter and force the mill owners into recognizing their existence. An early recruit is Elle Wiggins, a poverty-stricken woman earning $9.00 weekly for a 72 hour workweek. She and her four surviving children are barely eking out an existence in a two room shack in a community called Stumptown. All of the other residents are Negros,. Ellen sets out to recruit other women in the settlement to join in her efforts to form the union. Author Cash uses historical records to portray the clash and deaths that result from these initial attempts to unionize the South. This is a well written account of these efforts and heartily recommend this book. J M Lydon
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A mother wants to see her kids feed, educated, clothed and able that have money when one of her babes are sick. This unknown history about about a mother who wants to give her kids all the chances she didn't have, help to give her friends and to give both women, men, black and white, for higher wages, safety measures and interracial unions. This brave, hardworking, mother, woman, friend and organizer help changed the country and shows we can stand up for want we believe in. What a heck of an inspiration in the 21st century as she was in the 20th century.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is important on many levels. First, it is first rate historical fiction. It unveils important truths about the social, economic and racial divides in early Twentieth Century America. Second, it is timely in the”Time’s Up” age. The protagonist is an unforgettable strong woman who, like so many American women, was never accorded the respect and acclaim that she deserved. Finally, like all of Wiley Cash’s novels, it speaks to the heart. Cash writes about ordinary people that display extraordinary resilience. He writes about friendship, family and love—all the things closest to our hearts. I think Wiley Cash deserves a place among the great American story tellers from the South: William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, Harper Lee, and Pat Conroy.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved it and couldn't put it down
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
walc More than 1 year ago
The Last Ballad is excellent.
Skeet099 More than 1 year ago
It was a good book. I'm only leaving this review because I'm disgusted any time an author writes a story like this and doesn't give thanks to the people that made the sacrifices and worked themselves to death so that the author could write his/her story. I read every book I get my hands on from cover to cover and the acknowledgements have to be the worst part of any book based on reality. I really liked the book until I saw the missing "Thank You's". I really enjoyed this book, but I'll never read another book written by this unappreciative author.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The Last Ballad beautifully tells the story of Ella May Wiggins, - feminist, labor organizer, civil rights advocate. Cash's novel depicts events in that took place in my grandparent's generation, seen through the eyes of a hillbilly, a black porter, a monk, a wealthy socialite.... you feel the common experiences that unite us and the things that nearly tore our nation apart. You find your self reflecting on today's news as you read this story set in 1929,.
brf1948 More than 1 year ago
Wiley Cash has had a phenomenal string of work, each book completely different with only the common denominator of heart. The Last Ballad is a novel based on the facts surrounding the conflicts between the cotton mill owners and the National Textile Workers Union and the American Communist Party in Gaston County, North Carolina in the spring and summer of 1929. Ella May Wiggins was by that time a twenty-eight year old single working mother of four, making $9.00 a week for a 72 hour workweek on the night shift at American Mill #2 when she quit the mill to work full time for the Union in May of '29. She was a stout devout advocate for not just equality of wages and housing, but also women's rights, civil rights, and the right to an education by every child out there. But her sacrifices in life - and death - were buried at home, though nationally she was respected and honored. Wiley Cash was raised in Gastonia, NC, now a Charlotte satellite community of 70,000 but prior to the 50's a small, isolated place, and though his mother's maiden name was also Wiggins, neither she nor Wiley were aware of the sacrifices Ella May Wiggins had made for the cause of equality. They were not even aware of her existence. According to Wikipedia, in 2011 19.0% of all households In Gastonia NC had a female householder with no husband present, 24.7% of the population was under the age of 18, and estimated male full-time workers had a median income of $38,151 versus $29,590 for females. 32.5% of those Gastonians were both under the age of 18 and (6.9% of those 65 and older) were living below the poverty line.[11] This is a heartbreaking story, one repeated throughout the South and West of the US and still hiding in small communities today. There are many who would do away with Unions. Those who feel that Unions are now redundant, that they are no longer needed in our society and our economy today, will not number any of these have-nots. [11] "Selected Economic Characteristics: 2011 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates (DP03): Gastonia city, North Carolina". U.S. Census Bureau, American Factfinder. Retrieved March 26, 2013.
bookendco More than 1 year ago
The back of the book tells you about the story so I won't duplicate it here. This is a fascinating story and it is one of my favorite books this year. It's my first time reading this author and it won't be my last. Great historical fiction writer!
snickeysmom More than 1 year ago
Absolutely terrific historical fiction. I personally look forward to Mr. Cash's books, and this one is equally as heartfelt and gritty all in one. One of the best books this year - it definitely deserves a 5-star rating.
Rhonda-Runner1 More than 1 year ago
I absolutely loved this book. Ella May Wiggins was struggling in 1929 working 72 hours a week for $9.00 in a cotton mill trying to support her children and a worthless man who ended up disappearing. Ella decided to be a part of union organization of the mills in Gastonia County in order to earn a decent living for herself and her children. I was introduced to numerous characters in this book and they all meshed together very nicely in the end. I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves a good historical novel.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have read all of Mr. Cash's books and each one is better than the last. Read his other novels! ~*~LEB~*~
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
While I enjoyed this book, I was amazed that Ella put her ideals above her childrens lives, and as it turned out those kids grew up in an orphanage. The children never got over the loss of their mother.