The Loray Mill strike of 1929 in Gastonia, North Carolina, is a pivotal yet forgotten episode in American history. As the textile industry went into a slump, mill workers toiling 70-hour workweeks for salaries as low as five dollars a week demanded better conditions. In many cases, they were met with repression at the hands of the authorities and private security firms hired by the mill owners.
In spite of not accomplishing its immediate goals, the Loray Mill strike helped galvanize the national labor movement in the U.S., and even inspired a series of novels, most notably Sherwood Anderson’s Beyond Desire and Grace Lumpkin’s Take My Bread.
While the latter works have been dismissed as overtly didactic and politically heavy-handed, Wiley Cash’s new novel The Last Ballad falls into an entirely separate category, presenting a multi-layered and lyrical portrayal of the strike and the travails of mill worker Ella May Wiggins. The Last Ballad introduces Wiggins struggling to feed her four children as a single mother in the sole white household of an impoverished African-American settlement known as Stumptown. Wiggins works at American Mill No. 2, “… the smallest mill in town, and the only one to employ blacks and whites in the same jobs.” As such, the local community makes it clear to the mill owners that they should pay their workers less than the other mills.
Tired of the abuse and in spite of widespread threats of violence, Wiggins decides to attend a rally called by the National Textile Workers Union in support of workers at Loray Mill who walked off their jobs and are now being evicted from their company-owned housing. In an unlikely turn of events, Wiggins ends up speaking before an audience of thousands of mill workers. Her life story captivates them, but they’re even more enthralled when she sings a ballad of her own composition that describes their daily sacrifice. “The Mill Mother’s Lament” is one of several popular songs composed by the real-life Wiggins, whose story is as remarkable as Cash’s novelistic depiction, and whose lyrics have been cited as inspiration by the likes of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.
Cash describes Wiggins’ rise to the union’s leadership but he also delves into numerous other characters—a mill owner and his wife, a police officer, and even one of Wiggins’ daughters 75 years after the strike. Each voice amplifies the story and each fleshed-out character has an intriguing backstory. One in particular, that of African-American union organizer Hampton Heywood as he returns to a hostile South to help with the strike, reads like a masterful standalone novella.
With The Last Ballad, Cash (This Dark Road to Mercy, A Land More Kind Than Home) has written an ambitious novel that has something to say, and says so beautifully.
Cash will be in Shepherdstown during the week of Sept. 25-30, as the writer-in-residence at the 2017 Appalachian Heritage Festival at Shepherd University. For more information, click here.
— Gonzalo is a writer born in Texas, raised in Chile, and currently living in Shepherdstown. His books have been published in Spain and Chile, and his fiction has appeared in The Texas Review and Boulevard.By Gonzalo Baeza