Wiley Cash’s third novel is a sweeping, old-fashioned saga with an inspiring but ill-fated heroine at its center. The year is 1929, and Ella May Wiggins toils six days a week at a rural North Carolina textile mill to support her four children. Unlike most residents of the segregated town, Ella May mingles comfortably with African-Americans, including her best friend, Violet. Ella May’s bleak existence brightens just a bit when a union attempts to organize the mill workers. This angers many locals, forcing Ella May to choose between keeping quiet or standing up for what she believes is right. That choice is made for her when she is asked to speak at a union meeting, only to end up revealing herself to be a mesmerizing singer.
Ella May’s performance (“While we slave for the bosses / Our children scream and cry,” she sings) transforms her into a new kind of labor leader—one who just might be able to bring black and white workers together. But she also becomes an enemy to those who consider the union a band of Yankee invaders and “bolshevicks.”
Cash—whose previous two novels, A Land More Kind Than Home and This Dark Road to Mercy, were Southern-set bestsellers—eventually splits the narrative, and we see the looming labor violence through the eyes of a diverse cast of characters. We even move fast-forward to the present day, to see Ella May’s now-elderly daughter pass down stories of her heroic mother. This sometimes diminishes The Last Ballad’s narrative urgency, especially since Ella May is such a rich, sympathetic character. Overall, however, The Last Ballad is powerful and moving, exploring complex historical issues that are still with us today.