Friday, March 2, 2018

Books: Wiley Cash's "The Last Ballad" On Workers' Rights

The Last Ballad 
By Wiley Cash
William Morrow, An Imprint of Harper Collins

Wiley Cash, the award-winning and New York Times bestselling author of A Land More Kind Than Home and This Dark Road to Mercy,  is back in a big way with his new novel, The Last Ballad.

Inspired by true events around the Gastonia Mill Riots of 1929, The Last Ballad brings to life the bravery and struggle of the labor movement in early twentieth-century America.

The story is told via the perspective of Ella May Wiggins and a deep cast of eight characters connected by the Loray Mills in Gastonia, North Carolina.

The lyrical and heartbreaking story of Ella May is simultaneously haunting and encouraging. May felt that a life well-lived is not spent sitting idly while waiting for change to come; it is through our actions and our hope for a better tomorrow that makes life worth living.

The story of May could certainly be the motivation for readers to take action in our tumultuous times.

The Last Ballad pays tribute to the thousands of heroic women and men who risked their lives to secure basic rights for all workers.

A Conversation with Wiley Cash about The Last Ballad:

Q; The irony that the Loray Mill, where scenes in the book are set, is now home to luxury condos is not lost on you. Why is writing about the history of the mill so important to you now?

Cash: I grew in Gastonia, North Carolina, completely unaware of the history of the mill. Firestone purchased the mill not long after the 1929 strike, which was one of the only communist led strikes in American history. It turned the city upside down, people died, and families were run out of town. But by the time I was born in 1977, Gastonia had completely buried the story of the Loray Mills strike. It wasn't until I went to grad school in 2003 that one of my professors learned that I was from Gastonia and mentioned the Loray Mill strike. I researched the name Loray Mill and was shocked to learn that the place I'd always known as the Firestone Plant was the epicenter of one of the most important moments in American history. It had all occurred in my hometown, and I had grown up knowing nothing about it. My parents, who were born in the 1940s and came of age under Joseph McCarthy and the Red Scare, had also never heard of it. It made me realize that history is not a fixed thing, and it made me understand that politics and public sentiment can dictate what is retained and what is lost.

Q. Writing from varying character perspectives is something you excel in - what was the significance of writing this story from the eyes of eight different characters?

Cash: I hoped to give the reader a sense of the historical moment and the many competing forces that collided in a storm of race, class, and gender that gave rise to this violent upheaval. The most important perspective is obviously Ella May's, an impoverished working mother who's given birth to five children, one of whom has already died by the time the novel begins. Her struggle to earn a living wage and her decision to join the labor union is what drives the novel. But the other perspectives - a progressive mill owner and his wife, an African-American labor organizer from New York, a religious zealot, and Ella's grown daughter who is looking back on these events - are the forces that bring tension to the novel. I didn't want anything in the novel to be too easy. I didn't want anyone to be 100 percent saint, victim, or villain. I wanted to create and rely on characters that felt real and complicated because this event was complicated.

Q. The protagonist of The Last Ballad, Ella May Wiggins is based on historic figures. What was it about her story that inspired you to write about her and that period in history?

Cash: It was her absence from history and her absence from the story of my hometown that made me want to learn about her. But it was her bravery and her strength that made me want to write about her. From a personal perspective, my mother's maiden name was Wiggins. Her father, my grandfather, was twenty-two and, like Ella, working at a textile mill just a few miles away from Loray at the time of the strike, and he never mentioned a word of Ella's story or shared any memories of a strike with which he would have been very familiar. Ella May Wiggins, a woman who shared my grandfather's last name, became the international face of a labor movement that was making headlines around the world, yet my grandfather buried the story and his feelings about it for the rest of his life. My hometown did the same.

Q. You've placed your novels in North Carolina Appalachia before, in a A Land More Than Home and This Dark Road to Mercy. As a North Carolinian, how meaningful is it for you to keep your writing close to home?

Cash: Writing about North Carolina is meaningful to me. It also speaks to my strength as a writer. I think - portraying places and people that I know and have great affection for. Every novel that I've written comes from an experience I've had or from a story I know. My hope is that I always perceive the larger world through the lens of the place I know best.

Q. The Last Ballad is set in 1929, eighty-eight years ago. Are there current issues in American life today that stimulated your interest? How can fiction serve to illuminate social injustice while not being polemic?

Cash: The Loray Mill strike, which was about equal pay for equal work, racial inequality, and corporate greed, touches on issues that are still driving our contemporary political moment. Women are paid 80 cents on the dollar in 2017. I find that shameful. People in poor and oftentimes minority communities don't have access to the same quality of education and employment opportunities that people who live in middle class communities do. These aren't issues of people needing to work harder to overcome the misfortune of their birth, these are issues for which the government and communities need to step in and take some measure of responsibility for the pervasiveness of historical inequality. As far as the polemics of issues like these, I always think about the Elizabethan writer, Sir Philip Sidney, who said that the aim of literature should be to teach and delight. I am not necessarily trying to teach someone something new, but perhaps I am asking readers to view an issue in a way they've never considered it before. Sure, everyone has thought about issues of poverty, but have we ever been inside the home of someone who has lost a child to a poverty-related illness? We've all thought about issues of race, but have we ever had a conversation with someone who's been the victim of racial violence? In The Last Ballad, I'm hoping to tell an interesting story and I'm hoping to interest readers, but in telling what I believe to be an important story, I'm also hoping to reach them.

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