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The Last Ballad: A Novel, by Wiley Cash.

June 14, 2017

the-last-ballad-183203236The Last Ballad: A Novel, by Wiley Cash.  William Morrow (October 3, 2017).  FORTHCOMING.

2 stars

A fictionalized account of a young woman whose songs and organizing were part of the strike of textile workers on strike in North Carolina in 1929.

Wiley Cash is a young author who has set this novel in the southern Appalachian Mountains where he was born and raised.  He has written two other popular novels about the people of the region.

Ella May Wiggins, the central figure in The Last Ballad, was a real historical figure, but her life seems almost unbelievable. She was a white woman, raising her children in a tiny black community while working at a textile mill near Gastonia, North Carolina.  When she drifts into a group organizing a strike, she sings a moving song and quickly becomes a leader.  She works with Communist organizers and tries to bring African Americans into the union before she is killed by opponents of the strike.

The lives of the other characters in the book revolve around Ella May.  Presumably they are more fictional than she is.  Certainly they are even more unimaginable.  They include a boy who loses his hand to the textile machine and joins a monastery, a black communist man, and a small mill-owner and his family who take good care of “their” mill workers by building workers brick houses with indoor plumbing.

The writing of The Last Ballad does little to raise the level of the story.  Ella May is a strong, dramatic figure, but the various other stories often overshadow her narrative.  There have been other novels about her which I have not read. I wonder if they are any better.

I am regularly bothered by novels, such as this one, which mix fact and fiction without identifying which is which.  The problem is particularly bad in a novel, like this one, which deals with a known individual involved with explosive issues of race and communism, both of which were used to incite violence against the workers

I read The Last Ballad as a pre-publication digital edition which did not include acknowledgements.  I hope that the final book includes an attempt to discuss the fact/fiction problem.  I also hope that the final publication corrects some of its silly errors.

I do not recommend this rather shallow and sloppy novel.


3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 15, 2017 3:13 am

    I like books which mix fact and fiction but do want the authors to then explain in the afterword which is the factual content. A good example of how to,do this is Dominion by C.J Sansom where he includes at the back a list of all the books he used for reference and extensive notes on his research.

    • June 16, 2017 10:51 am

      Yes. I have read and enjoyed Sansom’s series. He does what I like best in historical fiction. He not only tells us his sources, his main characters are not the individuals who left records and have been researched by academics. He and others focus on the people who remain outside formal historical accounts. These are stories of individuals we know have to be fictional because we can never have the sources to document them. Historical figures remain on the edges of the stories.

      I admit that my attitude about this is shaped by my own experiences as n historian. I envy novelists who can tell the stories that most interest me without needing document that each “fact” is true. GOLDEN HILL by Frances Spufford, which I just reviewed, is another example.

      • June 16, 2017 4:04 pm

        In that case you must have been interested by the discussion stimulated by Hilary Mantel’s recent comments on how historians dismiss historical fiction writers

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