2017-10-11 / Editorial

Book brings oppression to life

Can we trust the people who taught us our state’s history when we were growing up? Or do we have to turn to fiction writers to open the doors to a true version of North Carolina’s past?

Released this month, Wiley Cash’s novel, The Last Ballad, set in 1929’s Gaston County’s textile mill country, forces us to confront uncomfortable facts about the brutal conditions workers faced on the job and in their struggles to make a life on their meager pay.

Ella May Wiggins, the lead character in Cash’s book, is based on a real person, who was killed while participating in a major strike at Loray Mills in Gastonia.

As Cash explains in the October issue of “PineStraw” magazine, the 28-year-old Wiggins had given birth to nine children and was working a 72- hour week for which she earned $9. She wrote and sang protest songs, some of which were later performed by Woody Guthrie.

On the frame of this real character, Cash builds a moving story that puts readers in Wiggins’s shoes as she walks the two miles every evening from her hovel in Stumptown to American Textile Mill #2 in Bessemer City, works all night in the dirt and dust and clacking noise, and then walks back to tend to the children she had left alone the entire night.

I am not sure how Cash did it, but what he put in words brought Wiggins and the oppressive times in which she lived into full focus.

And those words and the story they tell confirm Cash’s place in the pantheon of North Carolina’s great writers.

D.G. Martin is host of North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs on WUNC-TV.

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