Book Buzz: The Last Ballad

The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash

Working the night shift six nights a week to support her four kids (with another on the way), Ella May Wiggins is tired, and desperate, and her $9-a-week paycheck barely keeps enough food on the table.

Her oldest daughter, Lilly, takes care of the younger children while Ella is at work. When three-year-old Rose gets a cough and high fever, Ella stays home to care for her, losing pay and falling further behind. She has lost a child before, though, and cannot bear to lose another one.

In Wiley Cash’s The Last Ballad, the combination of Ella May’s poverty and her unmarried status have ostracized her from the white community, so she lives outside the main town in a collection of shacks called Stumptown where all of her neighbors are black. Many of them are also friends and coworkers, as the mill she works in is the only mill that employs both black and white workers. It is North Carolina, 1929, in the Appalachian foothills, and Jim Crow is alive and well.

The mill in a neighboring community is trying to unionize, and Ella May becomes intrigued when she sees the flyer for a rally. She recognizes her servitude and the injustices perpetrated by her employer, but is also fearful of drawing attention to herself that might jeopardize her job. A combination of curiosity and desperation win out, however, and Ella decides to go to the rally on her day off to learn more about the union.

Once there, union organizers recognize that she has a moving story to tell, and convince her to take the stage. When she sings the refrain of a song she has written, “But understand, dear workers, our union they do fear. Let’s stand together, workers, and have a union here,” she wins the hearts of the gathered crowd and a new union organizer is born. The union agrees to pay Ella May slightly more than she makes at the mill if she will help them get workers signed up for the union.

Ella May immediately thinks of the plight of her friends and neighbors in Stumptown and decides to work toward unionizing black workers and integrating the union, an action that makes union leadership none too happy. And when a black labor organizer from the big city of New York comes to town, Ella May finds herself in the eye of a storm.

Chapters are told from various points of view, among them Ella May, a white police officer, and the black labor organizer, as well as a letter that Lilly, at age 75, writes to her nephew, describing the world his father grew up in. There is so much animosity between the mill management and the workers, the police and the labor organizers, it works well to allow each of the voices to speak for themselves.

The Last Ballad is inspired by the events of an actual textile mill strike in 1929 and, although it is nearly 90 years later, the themes of economic inequality, fear-mongering, racism and sexism are still relevant today and spotlight the heroic courage and compassion required to create change.

Lisa Gresham is the Collection Support Manager for Whatcom County Library System.

(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, September 20, 2017.)