A kind friend sent me a copy of Cash's latest and I have to admit that the first couple of pages had me hesitant about continuing on, in spite of my trust in my friend's recommendations. It wasn't the writing -- the writing is beautiful -- but the subject matter -- millworkers in 1929 North Carolina, the deplorable conditions they endured, and their fight to unionize. This is going to be grim, I thought.
But I kept reading, caught up in Ella May's story and the compelling depiction of her struggle to feed her children. It is those hungry children and the hope of something better than nine dollars a week for a six day, twelve-hour nightshift that nudges her into the dangerous union movement. And there she becomes something of a star -- a ballad singing crowd pleaser.
I was hooked. I finished the book in a day.
Cash's focus is Ella May Wiggins (who was a real person,) but he interposes her story with that of others both in the midst of and on the periphery of the main action. And all of these characters are fully fleshed with stories of their own in which the reader becomes invested.
It's a beautifully detailed look at a certain time and place -- but as a blurb by Ben Fountain says: "In an era when American workers are besieged as they haven't been since the Great Depression, I can think of no more relevant novel for our times than The Last Ballad."