Reviewed by Harriet
I have certain reservations about novels in which the central character is someone who really existed. Sometimes it works really well, as for example in the case of Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea, or the Josephine Tey novels of Nicola Upson. Other times, though I won’t name names, I’ve been a bit dubious. Here, in The Last Ballad, we have a protagonist who is a real historical figure, though you may not have heard of her (I hadn’t). She is Ella Mae Wiggins, and she played an important role in the US textile workers’ strike in the 1920s. The known facts of Ella’s life make rather slim pickings, so Wiley Cash has expanded her story and surrounded her with other characters both fictional and real.
Ella Mae was born in a small mountain village in South Carolina. Pregnant at sixteen, she and her unreliable husband moved to an area where there was work. As more children arrived – Ella gave birth to nine, though only five survived – she took up work in a textile factory. Soon more or less single, she lived in an African American ghetto, the only white person there. Her neighbour and friend Violet kept an eye on the children while Ella worked all night for a pathetically small salary. If one of the children was ill and she was off work, her pay was docked and the family would not eat. A chance meeting with Sophia, a liberated young woman from the north, introduced her to the newly formed textile workers’ union, and despite her initial misgivings, she soon became not only a member but a leading light. A talented singer, she would inspire the crowds with her own songs before launching into impassioned speeches. But her very fame and energy singled her out, and she was shot to death in cold blood a few days short of her 29th birthday.
Apart from what is a heart-rending story of a tragically short life, Wiley Cash draws a fascinating picture of the social and political context of Ella’s life. Among the most striking issues that are raised is the struggle Ella had to get her African American friends and neighbours to join the union. Working in the only factory in the area to allow black and white workers to work side by side, she was in an ideal position to see that they needed union support as much as she did. Their unwillingness to get involved was owing to the racism that was rife among the white textile workers – there’s a terrifying scene depicting a night when the whites set upon the black workers who have been brave enough to come to a meeting.
We don’t see much of Violet, but an important part in the novel is played by a young black man, Hampton Hayward. He has risen from humble beginnings in the south and now lives in New York and works on the railway as a Pullman porter. Having come into contact with the communist organisers of the strike, he is persuaded to come south and help to try to organise the unwilling black workers. His experience is shocking and dangerous, and he is forced to see what life I the south is really like:
He should have remembered that this wasn’t Harlem, where a girl like Sophia could speak to you on the street, invite you to meetings, address you by your first name, call you brother. This was the south, after all, where buckshot blew through doors and lives were abandoned in the night and lost for ever.
Hampton is the most memorable of the secondary characters, who all have chapters devoted to themselves. We also meet, among others, Claire, the mill-owner’s daughter, Kate, his liberal-minded wife, and the owner himself, who proves to be a better man than his exalted position might easily have made him. All three have moments that intersect in some way with Ellie’s story.
It has to be said that some of the secondary material is less successful, but overall the action moves slowly but relentlessly towards the inevitable denouement when the murder of Ellie Mae takes place. This is a big novel with an important subject, and illuminates a time and a place about which many readers will not know much, if anything. Worth reading for the historical and social context, but also for a picture of great human bravery and endurance in almost unimaginably dreadful conditions.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books
Wiley Cash, The Last Ballad (Faber and Faber, 2018). 978-0571340699, 384pp., hardback.
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