Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.
Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title or an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.
The Last Ballad: A Novel
By Wiley Cash
Harper Collins Publishers
Wiley Cash’s most recent novel, “The Last Ballad,” won the 2018 Southern Book Prize for Literary Fiction, awarded by the Southern Booksellers Alliance. It traces a mill strike in Gastonia, NC, in 1929 that has been largely covered up. Much like Philip Gerard’s book, “Cape Fear Rising,” sought to bring the events of the coup of 1898 in Wilmington back into focus and discussion, Cash’s book drops the curtain and reveals events surrounding a shrouded and dark moment in North Carolina history.
Ella May Wiggins works the night shift in a textile mill in Gaston County, North Carolina. Now a single mother, she is struggling to keep her surviving children fed when she becomes pregnant again. She lives in Stumptown, just outside Bessemer City and works as part of an integrated workforce in 1929. As Cash has her character note in different ways throughout the book: Poverty is poverty, no matter what color its skin. So she and her children live in a predominately African-American area in the late 1920s. It’s different from where she grew up in the mountains of Tennessee, but it is where she is now and she has to make the best of it.
What parents haven’t wanted better for their children? Surely, any parent watching their children wither from hunger and die from lack of medical care has wanted more. When a flyer for a union organizing meeting comes to her, Ella May is a woman who has nothing left to lose: She will try anything to give her children a thriving life. The tide of events sweeps her into the labor union, and her compelling story and gift for songwriting make her the face of the strike.
When reporters, photographers and newspapers are mentioned in the text, my mind flashed to the iconic photograph of Florence Owens Thompson, from the Dust Bowl photography of Dorothea Lange. titled “Migrant Mother.” Actually, it is an apt comparison: Owens became a symbol for something much larger than herself and part of a message she couldn’t control, much like Ella May in Cash’s book becomes involved in something much bigger than she could have imagined and certainly can’t control.
Cash tells Ella May’s story, using several different perspectives, including Ella May as the point-of-view character; an African-American union organizer from the North named “Hampton”; two different generations of white women from the same mill-owning family; and my favorite, the voice of Lilly, Ella May’s oldest child, writing a letter at the end of her own life and looking back at the events surrounding her mother’s death. Her voice is so direct—and in a sea of ambiguity, she has managed to fish out a certainty and understanding that few people find in their lives.
I don’t need to tell readers Cash is one of the gifted writers of his generation. The award from the Southern Booksellers Alliance is no surprise, just confirmation. But why is the book so compelling of all of Cash’s work? Well, I have two compliments to the work that are the only answer I can offer here: The first involves a memory from the summer before 11th grade AP English. Like many people, I had to read Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” I usually would read while eating. I lost four pounds when I was supposed to read that book because of the guilt I felt trying to get through lunch while flipping the pages Steinbeck’s powerful portrayal of the Oakies starving their way across the western United States.
“The Last Ballad” resonated much of the same. Cash uses food constantly in the book: who gets to eat what and when; how each character reacts to the available food; Ella May’s constant catalogue of what she can feed her children. For two days, I stared inside a full refrigerator in my house and my stomach turned in guilt. Finally, on the third day, I decided to be grateful for the opportunities available and make a real meal. At that meal, I read aloud to Jock the afterword from “The Last Ballad.” Tears ran down my face into the bowl of potato soup—which brings me to compliment number two:
Hands down, my favorite living North Carolina novelist is Sharyn McCrumb. The range of her work is incredible and as a storyteller, she is unparalleled—especially with her “Ballad” books, based upon traditional Appalachian ballads. She writes fascinating afterwords that detail her research methods and the evolution of the story to the page. More than any other sources, North Carolina history has become real for me through her work and Inglis Fletcher’s (author of the “Carolina Chronicles” series, who is buried in the National Cemetery on Market and 20th). Cash’s afterword, combined with the body of the novel, rival and possibly surpass McCrumb’s. He beautifully—and with great admiration for Ella May and for his own family and families like his—illuminates why this story resonates deeply in the human soul. It’s like a string plucked on the guitar in the book and continues to vibrate long after you think you have put it down.
If you haven’t discovered Wiley Cash’s work before, now is the time to do it. “The Last Ballad” is a beautiful, lyrical and haunting retelling of a story that will color how you see the history of where you live and question what your role in the future of it can be.
Congrats, Wiley, for the much-deserved Southern Book Prize.