The BookEnds: The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash

The Last Ballad by: Wiley Cash

Set in the foothills of North Carolina in 1929 Ella May Wiggins walks two miles to her job at American Mill No. 2. She takes home $9.00 after laboring away six days a week in hazardous conditions. Her husband has run off and she is trying desperately to take care for her four children. She is curious and tempted when a union leaflet is passed around the mill. After much consideration, Ella decides to go to the rally and she unexpectedly becomes deeply involved with the union. Her fight for fair wages has made her an enemy of those that oppose her position and she will now have to fight for her life.

Becky: Last month I joined PageHabit*. Depending on the membership you purchase, each month or quarter, you receive a package with at least one new release and some other goodies. The Last Ballad was in my first box so I didn’t choose this book in a traditional manner. However, I was pleasantly surprised. This book is based on a true event in the author’s hometown. There are several points of view as this story develops and the first several chapters introduce different characters in this story. Pam, did you find this confusing?

Pam: The different points of view come together to form a complete account of the event. However, I did find that they were a lot to keep track of initially. This method of telling the story offered many different perspectives and allowed the reader to see a more thorough account of the event. Ella is the center of the story and all of the accounts are tied back to her and the part she plays. Ella has had a hard life and struggles to take care of her growing family. What were your thoughts about this character?

Becky: Some of her choices were hard for me to understand and frustrated me. However, for the most part I loved this character. She was a strong woman that fought for a worthy cause but put herself and her children in a dangerous situation. This book was a reminder to me that some of our privileges as Americans came at a high cost for previous generations. She was very poor and for me it was difficult to read about the lack of food and challenge to care for her children. She was a tough woman and the author did a great job giving her depth. The story was confusing for awhile with all of the different time frames and characters but it was worth the frustration as the story comes full circle. The book includes the story told from Lilly, Ella May’s daughter whom is now seventy-five years old. Did you like this flashback or did you feel like it was too much for one story?

Pam: I really enjoyed the flashback aspect of the story. I felt that it gave perspective to the events and characters in the story. There were such turbulent aspects to the story, that I found this comforting and grounding. It was also interesting to hear Lilly’s thoughts about her mother and the events of the time. I agree that it was very hard to read about the hunger and conditions where the children lived. Lilly’s letters to her nephew helped see the whole picture and beyond these challenges. How did you feel about Lilly’s letters to her nephew? Were you surprised by her feelings about the events?

Becky: It was a very interesting perspective to hear the story from the mother’s point of view and then chapters later to see the story from the daughter’s (as a mature woman looking back on her childhood). Her memories were not what I would have envisioned but it successfully filled in the story from another angle. Her ‘voice’ was not what I would have expected from an elderly woman but it was refreshing and fun. The story is also told from the perspective of a black train porter, a mill owner and a mill owner’s wife. They each brought a different light to the story but although a small role, the mill owner’s wife was my favorite of the three. I enjoyed how her perspective changed as she grew to know Ella May. Did any of these characters impact the story for you?

Pam: I agree with you, Becky. I felt that the mill owner’s wife had a large impact on this story. She was from a very different station than Ella May and expected to just go along with what was happening around their town. However, not only did she allow her perspective to change based on events and overheard information, she also decided to take action. This was dangerous for her and she could have easily hidden in her comfortable home and not ventured out of her safe life. Not only did she reach out to Ella May, she took a stand with her husband and demanded help when it was needed. This character was an intriguing surprise in the story. Were you surprised that Ella May trusted this virtual stranger?

Becky: I did not expect these two ladies to connect due to the extreme differences in social status. I loved that it spoke to the connection that women can make when opportunity allows us to see the struggle someone else is enduring. I am in awe of this strong woman in history and it amazing me that she had such an impact in such a short amount of time. I have read one of his other books, This Dark Road to Mercy, and I did not care for it as much as I did this one. Were you previously familiar with Wiley Cash?

Pam: I have never read anything else by this author, so was new to his writing. I would be interested in looking into his other books, especially if they are historical in nature. It was very interesting to learn about this historical event, of which I had not been previously aware. Next month, we will continue with another historical event. Although this event is very different, we will continue to be immersed in trials and danger as we read Leopard at the Door by Jennifer McVeigh.

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