The Last Ballad is the true story of Ella May Wiggins, a young mother of 5 children, who worked in the textile mill in 1929 and became the voice of the union struggle for workers’ rights. Ella only earned $9 a week working nights at the mill, unable to stay home to care for her ill children. Her husband ran off, and she lived as a single parent in Stumptown, depending on the help of her poor neighbors to care for her children while she worked grueling hours at the mill.
Cash’s story of Wiggins and her involvement with the formation of the union is a fascinating, often-ignored piece of history. The book uses multiple perspectives, which is a useful technique to show the determination of the grassroots efforts of the labor movement and why unions were the only answer for many people with no other options. This book is important and Ella’s story needs to be told; however, it’s over-researched, and Cash often drifted into tangents of historical information or recitation of timelines that pulled me out of the story. Also, the outcome is revealed early in the book, which deflated the powerful ending.
The Last Ballad is good, but not great. I knew what was coming, since Cash told me from the beginning, so most of the story was just watching the events unfold. The ending was gentle and heartbreaking, which almost redeemed the slow middle.
I really enjoyed another novel of Cash’s, A Land More Kind Than Home, so although The Last Ballad fell flat for me, I still look forward to his subsequent books.
Many thanks to Edelweiss and William Morrow for the advance copy in exchange for my honest review.