The last ballad : a novel

by Wiley Cash

Paper Book, 2017


Fiction. Literature. Suspense. Thriller. HTML: 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..… (more)



Call number



New York, NY : William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2017.


Media reviews

Inspired by the events of an actual textile-mill strike in 1929, Cash (This Dark Road to Mercy, 2014, etc.) creates a vivid picture of one woman’s desperation... Although it is initially a bit difficult to keep so many points of view straight, it is satisfying to see them all connect. It’s
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refreshing that Cash highlights the struggles of often forgotten heroes and shows how crucial women and African-Americans were in the fight for workers’ rights. A heartbreaking and beautifully written look at the real people involved in the labor movement.
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Powerful and poignant, North Carolina author Wiley Cash’s third and best novel tells the story of Ella May...Beyond Ella’s personal story, this is the very best kind of historical novel — one whose events are largely nonfiction, and whose characters, invented though they may be, probably
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closely resemble the souls who did walk the Earth during that time. Cash is a fine and subtle writer, who tells an American story painful in the way the most authentic American stories are — replete with personal, political, sexual, racial and class strife, yet redeemed by gritty individual and community faith in a better, fairer world.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member msf59
“There is an old saying that every story, even your own, is either happy or sad depending on where you stop telling it. I believe I'll stop telling this one here.”
In 1929, Ella Mae Wiggins was working in a textile plant, in the Appalachia foothills of North Carolina. Wages were grim and the
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working conditions were grueling, as they workers toiled in 60-70 hour work weeks. She could barely feed her children. When a union organization arrives from up north, they are able to recruit Ella, to join the cause. She becomes a beacon of hope and she also becomes a deadly target for the mill owners, the KKK and the authorities.
I had not heard of Ms. Wiggins but thanks to Mr. Cash's latest novel, he has enlightened me on this unsung and courageous young woman. The story-telling and research that went into this book, is truly inspiring and Cash has proven, once again, that he is one of our most reliable southern authors, working today. Seek it out!
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LibraryThing member Mishker
Ella May Wiggins is a 28 year-old woman with five kids, one who has already died. Six days a week she walks two mile to work the night shift at American Mill No.2, a textile mill in 1929, for $9.00 a week. With no husband, this is barely enough to keep her family afloat. Luckily, Ella may has the
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help of her colored neighbors in Stumptown when she is at work. Fed up with the long hours, dangerous conditions and paltry pay, Ella May joins the labor union movement. She is quickly elevated as a poster child for the movement, especially because of her unique voice and songwriting skills that weave her experience in the mill into a ballad that all workers can relate to.

Told through alternating viewpoints of Ella May and people who came in and out of her life, we learn about Ella May's involvement in the labor union movement and how it ultimately led to her demise. This is not a spoiler as this is revealed quite early on in the story. However, this was quite a shock to me and for the rest of the story I was wondering how all of these other viewpoints would lead up to that moment. I did enjoy learning about this time in history and the labor union movement, especially the role that women played. I was definitely inspired by Ella May's song and was glad to learn that it had such an impact on those around her. Through the different voices, I was lead through a dark part of US history, the fight for and against worker's rights. I do wish that there was more of a centralized voice, with so many narrators I did have a little trouble focusing on Ella May and seeing how everything fit together in some cases.

This story was received for free in return for an honest review.
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LibraryThing member bemislibrary
If her job in the textile mills does not kill her, poor living conditions will. Her husband left without knowing there was another child on the way. Ella May lends her voice to the cause when the union organizer came to town. Becoming recognizable is never a good thing when those with the money,
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power, and privileges do not want to share. The author does a good job describing the inequalities and violence of the period. Superficial treatment of some characters distracted from the story upsetting the pace. The ending showed drastic changes to the family but show little if any change to the working conditions.

I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway. Although encouraged, I was under no obligation to write a review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.
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LibraryThing member Kimaoverstreet
The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash tells the story of Ella May Wiggins, a single mother of four, who challenges the status quo by joining a burgeoning Labor movement in the mill towns of Appalachia. Ella May is so colorful, brave, and heroic (and her working conditions so awful) that it is easy to
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imagine Mr. Cash conjuring her up for a fairy tale, but in fact she was a real person, and this novel is based on actual events in 1929. Ella is not perfect, especially by the standards set for a woman in the 1920’s.

Chapters alternate between Ella’s story and letters written by her daughter, Lilly, to pass on the family’s history to a beloved nephew. From history class, I knew that things did not end well for coal miners and mill workers in the early days of the labor movement in the USA, especially when the Pinkerton agents were called in, but reading a story can make you understand something in a way no mere recounting of facts can. In today’s divisive political climate, with tensions glaring between races, sexes, and social classes, an understanding of our history is more important than ever. I highly recommend this book!
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LibraryThing member lauralkeet
The Last Ballad describes the struggles of both labor organization and racial integration in North Carolina fiber mills during the early 20th century. Wiley Cash tells the story of Ella May Wiggins, a white worker turned activist who ultimately lost her life while working for the cause. Ella May
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was a single mother living in poverty, doing her best to feed her family. She believed in the union cause, but perhaps more importantly, they paid her a better wage as a union organizer than she could earn in the mills, and it provided her a way to try to improve working conditions for both black and white workers.

I loved the structure of this book. There are several narrators, each with their own personal history. Their individual threads advance Ella May’s story, and sometimes intersect with one another as well. Ella May’s daughter Lilly’s thread is set in 2005, providing both prologue and epilogue for the book. Cash’s afterword, where he discusses the history behind this book and his personal interest and connection to it, was also very interesting. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member vancouverdeb
I have read and enjoyed Wiley Cash'e other two books, A Land More Kind Than Home, and This Dark Road to Mercy. This story was a real eye opener for me. It takes place small town in North Carolina, in 1929. Based on true events, it is a shocking revelation to read about the dreadful treatment of
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people the Southern USA. Ella May is our main protagonist, and she is a woman in her twenties, working 12 hours shifts, 6 days a week at a cotton mill factory. She lives in shack with her four children, as her husband has long left her . Being a more progressive or practical sort of a person, she lives next door to African American people , who are treated even worse than folks like Ella May. This is the story of the beginning of unions in the USA, or as people saw it at that time, the onset of a Communist Menace. I really was shocked by the way life was - and probably still is in parts of the USA.

The one weakness that I felt the story had was that it was told from perhaps too many points of view. At times that made the story seem a bit hard to follow. Overall, a very important read.

4 stars and recommended.
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LibraryThing member bookchickdi
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
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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."
"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.
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LibraryThing member Unkletom
The biggest problem with novels based on actual events is those pesky spoilers. Seriously, how many people who watched the movie Titanic didn’t know at the outset that that ship was going to sink? Sometimes, though, it is necessary to put a human face on events that shape the world we live in. If
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Jack hadn’t sacrificed himself and died of hypothermia to save the woman he loved, how could we possibly come to care about a hunk of steel plummeting to the ocean floor?

So it is with the early days of the American labor movement. We learned in school how those who worked for long hours under hellish conditions for starvation wages took a stand against rich factory owners who had the resources to buy not only armies of hired muscle and Pinkertons but the very government and military itself to maintain control of their mines and factories. But it can never become personal until we read first-hand the stories of Orville Frank Aderholt, a police chief who strove to maintain order in chaos but ended up dead in a shoot-out, or Ella May Wiggins, folksinger and labor organizer who was murdered by a mob of strike breakers. And few authors are better suited to resurrect the voices than Wiley Cash, a native son of North Carolina and master of southern literature.

Although both sides painted different pictures of Ella May Wiggins, some things are known. Like many Appalachian hill people, she was lured away from the mountains to a life in the factories with promises of good jobs by company recruiters hired to bring in lots of cheap labor to run their mills. Her job at American Mill in Bessemer City, North Carolina, wasn’t enough to provide adequate food and shelter for her and her four children so she found the rhetoric of the labor unions. Like many hill people, Ella May had a close connection with folk music and used it to tell her story and union rallies.

It is unsettling to read how closely connected the unions were to the Communist party at this time in our history but the reality is that the party was one of the most outspoken advocate for the abolition of Jim Crow laws, an end to lynching, equal access to education, interracial marriage, and the rights of workers to demand fair wages and safe working conditions. I suspect that the animosity Americans have towards communism today stems more from the propaganda spread by the captains of industry who needed to win the war for popular opinion and couldn’t do it by preaching that living wages are bad.

Another problem that authors experience when writing novels about actual events is that those actual events don’t always end in a way that one would wish them to, but Cash reminds us of the old adage that ‘every story, even your own, is either happy or sad depending on where you stop telling it.” Not all author know when to end a story, but Wiley Cash does.

*Quotations are cited from an advanced reading copy and may not be the same as appears in the final published edition. The review was based on an advanced reading copy obtained at no cost from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review. While this does take any ‘not worth what I paid for it’ statements out of my review, it otherwise has no impact on the content of my review.

FYI: On a 5-point scale I assign stars based on my assessment of what the book needs in the way of improvements:
*5 Stars – Nothing at all. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
*4 Stars – It could stand for a few tweaks here and there but it’s pretty good as it is.
*3 Stars – A solid C grade. Some serious rewriting would be needed in order for this book to be considered great or memorable.
*2 Stars – This book needs a lot of work. A good start would be to change the plot, the character development, the writing style and the ending.
*1 Star – The only thing that would improve this book is a good bonfire.
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LibraryThing member Beamis12
What would you do if you were in your late twenties, already have had for children and now a new one on the way. Your husband has left you, you are now poor and alone, living in a shack in the black section of town. You, yourself are not black nor are your children, but they have proven to be
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wonderful friends, one named Violet you call your best friend. In order to feed your children, you work at a textile mill, 60-70 hour work weeks, making only nine dollars a week. Then you see flyers asking people to protest, strike and join a Union. They promise many things, better pay, shorter hours, better working conditions, and for Ella Mae she sees this as possibly her only chance to better herself and children. The year is 1929, in the Carolinas and there are many textile mill, blacks and whites both work at the mills but in separate areas or separate floors. What would you do?

My father was a Union worker, my husband worked Union for over forty years. We supported Union stores, I have only been in a Walmart three times, Aldis, once. I knew what a struggle these early supporters faced, but never to the extent highlighted in this book. Ella Mae is a strong character, her life incredibly hard. We hear from many different characters in alternating chapters, all either fighting for the right to unionize, both black and white, or involved with those against the Unions or mill owners themselves. We get a broad view, see all sides. Parts are heartbreaking, parts show how falsely things were painted, and parts show how quickly things can get out of hand. This author is a marvel, I love how he puts his stories together, they are always informative and heartfelt, full of truths. My one complaint is that I felt one revelation made early in the book would have had more of an impact if held until later.

As with all who in earlier years fought for our rights, in whatever way, we owe them a debt of gratitude. Unfortunately, I don't think we are done fighting for, or maintaining our rights, not with what I have seen on my television news this week, not with what is happening with individual rights in my country. Seems we go backwards instead of forward.

ARC from William Morrow and Edelweiss.
Released the beginning of October.
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LibraryThing member LyndaInOregon
This well-written but ultimately depressing novel is based on true events from the battle to unionize North Carolina textile mill workers in 1929.

The book’s main character, Ella May Wiggins, is a young woman with four children to feed and an absent husband. She goes to work in a major textile
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mill where cotton is processed and spun for weaving, working a 70-hour week for $9. She bangs heads with management when she misses a shift to care for one of her children, who is desperately ill with whooping cough – a disease which had earlier taken one of her babies. The young woman, whose life up to that point had consisted of desperate poverty, grinding labor, and deprivation, is attracted to the burgeoning labor movement, led in Gastonia by Communist party organizers from the North. At first only curious, she is swept into becoming a figurehead of the movement, and ultimately is at its center when a major strike erupts into violence.

Cash creates a number of characters for the book, some based on historical figures, some fictional. His sympathies are largely with Wiggins. He doesn’t refrain from acknowledging that she was used by some of the organizers who saw a sympathetic figurehead just at the time they needed one to get the planned strikes off the ground. In addition, Wiggins lived and worked with African-Americans in one of the only integrated work forces in the region. It’s this association and drive for integration of the union that ultimately drives a wedge into the striking laborers and provides the mill owners with a powerful weapon.

Written in 2017, there are eerie echoes (or foreshadowings) within the rhetoric of both sides. We heard many of these same terms bandied about during 2020’s Black Lives Matter movement. It’s unclear whether the facsimile newspaper pages in the book are Cash’s creations or genuine reproductions, but the anger, the hysteria, the false accusations, and the genuine fear of loss expressed in them could have been printed in any conservative American newspaper (or, more likely, in the Twitterverse) nearly a century after the Gastonia riots. They are rife with accusations of “fake news” and “outside agitators”, and include exhortations to “proud Americans’’ to “stand with us tomorrow and help us put down any insurrection that seeks to overthrow our government and alter our way of life”. In all caps, yet.

Apparently, we haven’t learned much.

Cash uses flashbacks, framing devices, and shifting points of view to unspool his story, so if you don’t want to know on page 48 what happens to Ella on page 360, this may not be the book for you. He also depends heavily on coincidence with some characters weaving their way in and out of the story and appearing just in time for maximum emotional impact.

Minor quibbles aside, this novel throws light on historical events that have largely been ignored or forgotten, and is well worth a read. Just don’t expect to come away from it with a happy heart.
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LibraryThing member brangwinn
Based on areal person, this novel takes the reader back to the 1920’s rural North Carolina where the poor are basically “owned” by the fabric mills. There’s no hope, only a bleak future. Ella May, a mill employee becomes convinced the only way out is to align with the Unions. Bleakness plus
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hope underlie the entire novel and create a picture of a strong-willed woman willing to fight for her future and those around her.
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LibraryThing member BooksCooksLooks
I again tackle an historical novel with it’s roots in the US. I am trying to read more about the past of this country – the good and the bad. In the course of the historical record, the period covered by The Last Ballad happened about an eye blink ago. Considering the path of the United States
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and its progress, it happened eons ago. Although I fear given the current state of workers’ rights in this country that some of the progress made as a result of the people who fought for the unions is being lost and American labor rights are being eroded.

Ella May Wiggens is living a very hard life in a mixed race community in North Carolina. She works in one of the mills – long hours, six days a week and she makes $9 for her efforts. She has made some bad choices when it comes to men and she has 5 children who rely on her. That $9 doesn’t stretch very far and when Ella May learns about a group promising better wages and working conditions she wants to know more about it so she uses her one day off to go to a union meeting. It’s there that the course of her life changes.

Ella May goes to work for the union. Along the way she makes some new friends – some are very surprising. Other friendships are strengthened as she pushes the union to include her friends at the mill. They are reluctant because they are Negro and while the union is all in favor of their membership they don’t think it’s the time yet in North Carolina.

The book also explores the lives of the people on the other side of the tracks – the mill owners but this is Ella May’s story and it’s a powerful tale. A trailblazing woman from history who was basically lost until this book brought her back to life.

I will admit that it took me a little while to get into this book. Mr. Cash’s writing style for Ella May was rooted in her era so the rhythm of the book required a bit of adjustment. Once I did I found myself immersed in her world. It was quite often, a very unpleasant world to inhabit as you can imagine. Ella May lived in what only kindly could be called a shack with her five children and the men in her life were less than reliable. It’s a shame because she was a driven, talented and intelligent woman – far ahead of her time.

The issues in this book are part of the building blocks of this country. The ordinary people who were lost in these fights are often forgotten so it’s wonderful to see someone like Ella May brought back to life in an engrossing book like this. I will note that the book has piqued my interest in learning more about the start of the labor movement in the country. I must admit that at times in my reading I was quite angry and horrified at working conditions for the people in the mill and the attitude of “management.” And trust me – my father was a man known for his distaste of unions. But in learning more about how and why they began I fully understand their need. And as noted above I fear things are going backwards in regards to worker protections so all of the work of the people like Ella May may be in vain.

The Last Ballad was a book that stayed with me and it will stay on my bookshelf for I think it is one I will want to read again. There is much to find in this tale of one simple woman trying to better herself for the sake of her children. It’s everyone’s story in a way.
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LibraryThing member whitreidtan
I have read other Wiley Cash books and thoroughly enjoyed them. I have heard him speak and even had dinner with him at a literary event. He writes beautifully and is clearly invested in the forgotten or hidden stories he tells of his native South. The Last Ballad, based on a true story, is a novel
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that he obviously holds close to his heart. Ironically though, despite his closeness to the subject matter, it is the least successful of his novels for me.

It's 1929 and Ella May Wiggins is a single mother of five children (four living) who works in a textile mill in Bessemer City, NC. She earns $9 a week, which isn't really enough to feed and clothe herself and her children. Her alcoholic ex-husband up and left before her last baby was born and the man she's with now (and pregnant by) is almost as no-account as her disappeared husband. Ella May lives in Stumptown, in the Negro part of town, despite the fact that she and her children are white. The Wiggins family, like their black neighbors, live in grinding, desperate poverty. When Ella May is reprimanded for missing work to care for her very ill child, she decides that she will attend a meeting to see what unionization could mean to her and to her children. Despite her fear of losing her job and the only income she has, she agrees to join the movement. After singing a heart-rending ballad she's written about the mills and motherhood, she quickly becomes the local face for the union, trading her mill job for one within the union organization. But the local mill owners are not about to allow these communist unions into their mills without a fight, a truly horrible and violent fight if required. Ella May, being so publicly recognizable will be square in the cross hairs of those determined to keep the unions out no matter what.

Mostly set in 1929 with two short portions in 2005, the novel is told from various characters' points of view. The multiplicity of characters, from Ella May to her daughter, from the wealthy wife of a mill owner to a violent sheriff's deputy, from a black activist to a broken man haunted by his past, and many more, shows the events of the novel from many different perspectives, highlighting the way that so many different people converged on Gaston County. This same multiplicity made it hard to follow the story as it switched from one person to another to another, sometimes quite far from the main plot thread. Eventually the threads all converged but until that point, the narrative structure gave it a choppy feel. While the history here is incredibly important to the story, it often drove the novel to the exclusion of the human story. History has covered the general story of unions and the conditions that led to them pretty thoroughly but the story of Ella May herself has faded into obscurity. Unfortunately, Ella May didn't quite come to life here either, portrayed as she was first as an unthinking pawn of the union and later as a martyr to their cause rather than the complete person she must have been. Her personal story, the things that made her more than just the singer, are sometimes told, not shown, in the novel but are almost never fully explored, lessening the emotional impact of this woman's life and her struggle. It must have taken heaps of courage to stand up for her children and herself, as well as for her black neighbors, who were not being welcomed into the union fold, but somehow this courage is only viewed at a far remove and not close and viscerally for the reader. I think perhaps the message overwhelmed the story here, which is a shame because there's quite a story to be told and usually Cash has the chops to pull it off. The writing itself is well done despite the stumbling block of the structure and the story is an important one, if incredibly bleak. Readers who like their fiction to confront injustice will still want to read this even if the emotional punch isn't quite there.
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LibraryThing member justablondemoment
Well written story of Ella Mae Wiggins and her death at the Loray Mill Strike in 1929. I had a hard time keeping involved with it at times as I wasn't that interested in the work done by the union...but the home life & working conditions that these people suffered and the strength that must have
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took was very thought provoking and inspiring
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LibraryThing member sleahey
In this beautifully crafted novel, the labor movement in the 1920's in the South is brought painfully to life. We follow the hard scrabble life story of Ella May, who against all odds briefly becomes a union spokesperson. The victim of abject poverty and abusive relationships, she nonetheless
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fights the employment practices of the mills and pervasive racism, at the same time attempting to care for her four children with another on the way. Positive characters balance the ugliness of the community sentiment and union politics, but there is no glossing over the violence, racism, and misogyny that seem relentless . Two chapters from the point of view of one of Ella May's daughters show resilience and strength in the end.
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LibraryThing member Harley0326
The setting is 1929 and times are hard for everyone. Ella May feels the pressure to keep her job in the mill. I don’t think her boss thinks very highly of her. When one of my children were sick, I stayed home from work. Ella May gets in trouble when she stays home with a sick child . I thought
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her boss was heartless and I wanted to smack him.

The book is based on actual events and the author does a good job of showing how hard it was to work in a mill as a woman. The hours were long and the pay was not nearly enough. What happens when the union comes to the mill? The owners don’t take kindly to someone trying to rile their workers up. The danger is well depicted in the story as anger spreads throughout the mill. Ella May is a strong woman, but can she stand up for what is right without getting hurt? The other characters brought much understanding of how labor laws can make workers and employers go up against each other. I loved the story and how much turmoil happens when lines are crossed in disputes in the workplace.

I received an advanced copy of this book from Good Reads early readers programs. The review is my own opinion.

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LibraryThing member m.belljackson
Wiley Cash description of Ella May looking at her hands will inspire many of us for a long time, as will the many bird images.

Yes, The Last Ballad warrants the full 4 Stars; yet, unlike the previous reviewers, I experienced a couple of let downs.

First, the introduction of characters Arthur and Tom
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and their whole boring awful episodes really slowed down the plot;
so much that Ella's murder felt like a distant afterthought. Verchel and his little chair did not add to the plot.

Next, the deepest character insights belonged to Richard McAdam, rather than to main characters Ella May and Hampton.
Violet remained oddly understated and it was strange that neither she nor Hampton enlightened Ella May on the horrific
fates of previous African Americans who had tried to unionize in the South. That knowledge could have deterred Ella
from leading them into the confrontation that Beal had so accurately predicted and tried so hard to avoid.

While the voice of Ella May as Mill Mother is singularly well done, it still does not realistically explain why, having been deserted
by one husband and being unable to support her three kids without food from Violet's mother, she would take a chance on getting
pregnant with an obvious drifter. She knows that the loss of her tiny income would probably end this precarious family if she
had to take time to deliver and care for a baby. Yet, she goes ahead, then fairly drives the new man away by tossing his precious guitar.

Claire and Donna add more distractions.

And, it still seems odd that, on page 5, it states that John had left 2 years ago, then, on page 22, it says that it had been 5 years.
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LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
The Last Ballad tells the story of workers in textile mills in the South in the late 1920s. Ella May is raising four children alone. She's got work, but her 72-hour work week pays less than enough to even feed them everyday. Her youngest is ill and when she stays home to care for him she'd told
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that if she misses another shift, she'll be fired. So when news comes that unionizers are to come to nearby Gastonia she's desperate enough to hope.

Told from several viewpoints, from the wife of a mill owner to a black union organizer terrified to be back in the South, Cash tells the story of one brave and desperate woman and also of the textile mills of the piedmont region of the Carolinas. It's fascinating stuff, and Cash clearly spent years in immersive research.
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LibraryThing member KatyBee
( I hope to eventually receive a delayed Early Reviewers copy of this novel; I was able to check it out of the public library for now.) Wiley Cash has written this historical novel based on life and death of Ella May Wiggins. The real Ella was born in Tennessee in 1900 and was murdered at the age
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of 29 during her work with mill strikers. She lived a terribly difficult life and she lost 4 of her 9 children to whooping cough and pellegra. Poverty stricken, she was only paid $9 for a 72-hour work week in a South Carolina mill. She ended up joining a labor union and became a worker's rights advocate and civil rights leader, working to integrate the union with African American neighbors and co-workers. She was also a folk song writer and literally became a voice for organized labor. It's wonderful that Wiley Cash has brought this lost story to life. It's a fitting tribute to this remarkable woman.
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LibraryThing member techeditor
THE LAST BALLAD is historical fiction about a poor female textile mill worker who one day in the 1920s walked off the job and joined the National Textile Workers Union. It is also about a certain one of their strikes in 1929 in North Carolina. The ex-mill worker was Ella May Wiggins, and that
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particular strike was the Loray Mill strike. These we know to be true because Wiley Cash says so in this “Afterword.”

Historical fiction always has some truth to it. That’s what makes it so appealing. But what about THE LAST BALLAD is true other than what Cash writes in his “Afterword”? I wanted to believe, especially, in Richard McAdam, the enlightened but weak mill owner, and Hampton Haywood, the black Communist from the North. So I did some research, and it looks like these and the other characters in the book just aid the story and are straight from Cash’s imagination.

Not only does Cash write well enough to make the reader want to believe his fiction; he also tells a balanced story. That is, for example, Ella is dirt poor, barely able to feed her children, but well-off Katherine McAdams wants to and does help her. Cash also shows both the good and bad characters in the police department and among the strikers.

This is an interesting story of a little-known part of American history. It is not a happy book, though.

I won this book through the JATHAN & HEATHER website.
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LibraryThing member pdebolt
I was completely engaged with this book and the memorable character of Ella Mae Wiggins from the first page. It is all the more powerful because it is based on a real person who worked at the Loray Mills in Gastonia, NC in 1929. It is difficult for us to comprehend the conditions under which the
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mill workers lived and worked without this eye-opening account.

A pregnant Ella Mae had the courage and conviction to advocate for unions despite the dangers it posed to her and her family. This family and the other mill workers truly defined the term "hardscrabble existence," especially after her seemingly worthless husband left them, and she endured the heartbreak of losing a child through a preventable illness if she'd had the means to provide adequate medical care.

Wiley Cash is a consummate story teller. It is impossible to read any of his noteworthy novels without being impressed by his ability to bring the characters and their environment to life.

My thanks to Goodreads and William Morrow for the opportunity to review this book in exchange for an honest review.
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LibraryThing member Alphawoman
DID. I'm in somewhat of a reading slump. This book was too depressing for me to continue with.
LibraryThing member Castlelass
Historical fiction set mostly in 1929 in North Carolina where mill workers are trying to organize. They are striking for higher wages and better working conditions. They are opposed by mill owners and a group of local residents who associate unions with “Bolshevists.” Protagonist Ella May
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Wiggins is abandoned by her husband and joins the union movement after struggling to feed her children on nine dollars per seventy-hour work week. She works at one of the few racially integrated mills. She wants the union to include blacks in their ranks but is resisted by other mill workers.

The story is told from eight different perspectives in two timelines. It is based on the life of a real person. Ella Wiggins is a distant relative of the author. He had grown up in the same region of the American south but had not heard her story until he was in college.

It is a beautifully written, tragic story. The only downside, for me, is the eight perspectives. I found I was just getting into one person’s account, when the narrative shifts to something completely different. It does not flow as well as some, but it is a moving account and one I am glad to have read.
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LibraryThing member ErickaS
The Last Ballad is the true story of Ella May Wiggins, a young mother of 5 children, who worked in the textile mill in 1929 and became the voice of the union struggle for workers’ rights. Ella only earned $9 a week working nights at the mill, unable to stay home to care for her ill children. Her
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husband ran off, and she lived as a single parent in Stumptown, depending on the help of her poor neighbors to care for her children while she worked grueling hours at the mill.

Cash’s story of Wiggins and her involvement with the formation of the union is a fascinating, often-ignored piece of history. The book uses multiple perspectives, which is a useful technique to show the determination of the grassroots efforts of the labor movement and why unions were the only answer for many people with no other options. This book is important and Ella’s story needs to be told; however, it’s over-researched, and Cash often drifted into tangents of historical information or recitation of timelines that pulled me out of the story. Also, the outcome is revealed early in the book, which deflated the powerful ending.

The Last Ballad is good, but not great. I knew what was coming, since Cash told me from the beginning, so most of the story was just watching the events unfold. The ending was gentle and heartbreaking, which almost redeemed the slow middle.

I really enjoyed another novel of Cash’s, A Land More Kind Than Home, so although The Last Ballad fell flat for me, I still look forward to his subsequent books.
Many thanks to Edelweiss and William Morrow for the advance copy in exchange for my honest review.
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LibraryThing member over.the.edge
The Last Ballad🍒🍒🍒🍒
By Wiley Cash
William Morrow

The courage and heart of Ella Mae Wiggins, her insight and belief that all Mill workers deserve equal and fair pay and working conditions, free from discrimination is based on actual events of 1929, in North Carolina. Her heroic efforts
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inspired many to demand change and opportunity.
The fight for justice, the honest and hard working life during this time of devastation and social change are moving and vivid. The desperation is felt. The slow pace of the book at first bothered me, but quickly became obvious and essential. This style helped make the book wonderful.
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Original publication date



0062313118 / 9780062313119

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