“He found her lying in the dirt between rows of cotton, the front of her dress soaked with blood. Her open eyes stared toward the sky.”
Some will say that the life of Ella Mae Wiggins was ordinary. Others say it was extraordinary. She worked in Bessemer City, North Carolina in the American Mill 102. When we’re talking about mills here, we’re talking about cotton mills in Gaston County. A place where you could make nine dollars and fifty cents a month for running a spinning frame.
The year was 1929. Ella Mae was a spinner, a mother, a labor union organizer, a singer-songwriter. Her journey began in Cowpens, South Carolina and ended up in a cotton field. Death came too early for Ella Mae.
Wiley Cash came later. He came of age in these parts, but he didn’t know the stories of Ella Mae Wiggins. Not until he was in graduate school. Wiley was an educated man, and he had stories to tell, a lot of them were about the south. Truth is stranger than fiction, and you’ll see what I mean, when you read the novel “The Last Ballad.”
Historical fiction, a genre that takes what happened, and adds more vivid colors and conversations that occurred in the author’s license. In 1929, mill hands and boss men were choosing sides in Gastonia. Will workers side with the owners? Or will they take a risk and join the Textile National Textile Workers Union. Better wages for the workers, if they could somehow eke out a victory. Almost certain eviction for those who came out on the losing side. Cotton mill hands lived in houses owned by the company; workers traded at the company store. Even the churches were in on it as the preachers encouraged hard work and temperance in their Sunday sermons.
A lot of details. A lot of research. Wiley Cash’s efforts took almost five years. According to the author, the research was way more fun than the writing etc. He created characters of fiction that served as mirrors, casting reflections, illuminating the life of Ella Mae Wiggins. What were her five children like? Why did Ella Mae befriend African Americans at the mill where she worked?
One of the things I like about this book is the way it’s written. You have several stories going on at the same time. The author is able to seamlessly weave stories, a color fabric with the warp and the weft.
Wiley Cash is a New York Times Bestselling Author. The winner of the Southern Book Prize.