The New York Times bestselling author returns with a new novel – a chronicle of a single mother’s struggle for her rights in a textile mill. Set in the Appalachian foothills of North Carolina in 1929 The Last Ballad (Faber, £12.99) is inspired by real events.
Tell us about the real life events behind The Last Ballad.
The Last Ballad tells the story of a young single mother named Ella May Wiggins who is swept up in a violent textile mill strike in the summer of 1929. The novel is based on real people and real events surrounding the Loray Mill strike. The strike was organised on 1 April by the National Textile Workers Union, which was the labour arm of the American Communist Party. Violence immediately followed: the governor called in the National Guard, protesters clashed with the army, and dozens of people were injured. Days later, the strikers’ headquarters was attacked by a mob and their food stores were destroyed.
The situation grew even more dire after strikers were evicted from the mill village. The union was desperate for someone to serve as the human face of the strike, and that’s where Ella stepped in. She worked at a nearby mill, but she joined the strike at Loray. She had given birth to nine children, lost four to whooping cough and pellagra, her husband had abandoned her, and she lived in a predominately African-American community. That summer she wrote and performed protest ballads that were later sung by Woody Guthrie and recorded by Pete Seeger. She travelled to Washington DC and confronted North Carolina congressmen about the plight of working mothers in southern mills. She integrated the labour union against the will of local officials. All of the things she did made her dangerous to the mill owners, and that endangered her life. Ella was a feminist and a civil rights leader before those terms were staples of the progressive movement, but she’s been lost to history. This novel is an attempt to change that.
What’s your connection to Ella’s story?
I grew up in Gastonia, North Carolina, completely unaware of the history of the mill. The Firestone Corporation purchased the mill not long after the 1929 strike, which was one of the only communist-led strikes in American history. It turned the city upside down, people died and families were run out of town. But by the time I was born in 1977, Gastonia had completely buried the story of the Loray Mill strike. It wasn’t until I went to grad school in 2003 that one of my professors learned that I was from Gastonia and mentioned the Loray Mill strike. I researched the name Loray Mill and was shocked to learn that the place I’d always known as the Firestone plant was the epicentre of one of the most important moments in American history. It had all occurred in my hometown, and I had grown up knowing nothing about it. My parents, who were born in the 1940s and came of age under Joseph McCarthy and the Red Scare, had also never heard of it. It made me realise that history is not a fixed thing, and it made me understand that politics and public sentiment can dictate what is retained and what is lost.
Was it a challenge to embody Ella, whose experiences are far removed from your own?
I live my life surrounded by strong women – my wife and my daughters especially. There’s the old maxim that says: “Write what you know.” Well, those are the women I know. In order for the novels I’m writing to work, the women at the centre of them have to be strong because they are either poor like Ella or disenfranchised in other ways. These women have to be strong to overcome the limitations that are placed on them by society and the people in their lives.
What interested me about Ella May was the story of a 28-year-old single mother who’d given birth to nine children and watched four of them die from poverty-related illnesses. This is a woman who had been abandoned by her husband and worked 72 hours a week in a textile mill for $9, and she was murdered for standing up for her rights just seven miles from the place I was raised, and I never heard a word about her. So her story was what made me want to write about her. What made me want to write about mill life is the fact that both of my parents were born in mill villages to parents who were part of the generation that left the farms for the “good life” offered by the mills. By the time I was born, the mill culture had passed. Many of the mills had closed and many of those jobs had either disappeared due to technology or had moved overseas. My grandparents were born on farms. My parents were born in mill villages. I was born in the suburbs. This novel is a backward-looking attempt at understanding that migration and trying to reclaim something of a past that’s gone forever.
It was Ella’s absence from history and her absence from the story of my hometown that made me want to learn about her. But it was her bravery and her strength that made me want to write about her. From a personal perspective, my mother’s maiden name was Wiggins. Her father, my grandfather, was 22 and, like Ella, working at a textile mill just a few miles away from Loray at the time of the strike, and he never mentioned a word of Ella’s story or shared any memories of a strike with which he would have been very familiar. Ella May Wiggins, a woman who shared my grandfather’s last name, became the international face of a labour movement that was making headlines around the world, yet once it was all over my grandfather buried the story and his feelings on it for the rest of his life. My hometown did the same.
Why is Ella’s story, and others like it, forgotten?
I have given this question a lot of thought, and the only answer I can come to is that history books are written by people like the ones who owned the mill, not the people like Ella who worked there.
Is it significant that you have written this story now, at a time when deindustrialisation and resulting joblessness and poverty have affected American politics?
The Loray Mill strike, which was about equal pay for equal work, racial inequality and corporate greed, touches on issues that are still driving our contemporary political moment. Women are paid $.80 on the dollar in 2017. I find that shameful. People in poor and oftentimes minority communities don’t have access to the same quality of education and employment opportunities that people who live in middle-class communities do. These aren’t issues of people needing to work harder to overcome the misfortune of their birth – these are issues for which government and communities need to step in and take some measure of responsibility for the pervasiveness of historical inequality.
As far as the polemics of issues like these, I always think about the Elizabethan writer, Sir Philip Sidney, who said that the aim of literature should be to teach and delight. I am not necessarily trying to teach someone something new, but perhaps I am asking readers to view an issue in a way they’ve never considered it before. Sure, everyone has thought about issues of poverty, but have we ever been inside the home of someone who has lost a child to a poverty-related illness? We’ve all thought about issues of race, but have we ever had a conversation with someone who’s been the victim of racial violence? In The Last Ballad, I’m hoping to tell an interesting story and I’m hoping to interest readers, but in telling what I believe to be an important story, I’m also hoping to reach them.
While fiction is not written about all times it can be read and applied to any specific time. The Last Ballad, which is set in 1929, can be read in light of contemporary events. The novel is about the tragic storm when issues of race, class, gender and economics came together in a violent conflict. These same things were happening leading up to the 2016 general election. Ella May Wiggins was a strong independent woman with her own ideas. Hillary Clinton was the same. Ella May stood up to the forces of economic greed and many people would argue that the name Donald Trump is synonymous with economic greed. As a matter of fact I don’t think Trump would have any problem making that argument himself. In The Last Ballad, Ella and her children are literally staving to death because, despite her struggles, she can’t make a living wage to feed her family. Ella and her children would not agree that greed is good. In our current political climate working families living at or below the poverty level who are having their social safety nets pulled out from beneath them would not agree that greed is good. So while The Last Ballad may be written about 1929, I suppose you could say that it can be read for our contemporary moment.
What is the state of unions in the US today?
That would depend on whom you ask. Most conservatives and conservative politicians believe that unions have too much power, but these are also people who believe that capitalism should thrive unchecked by regulations.
The story is set at a time of deep racial divisions, but Ella sees her black friends as her equals since they are all as poor as each other. Is that sense of unity among the dispossessed lacking in America today?
So much of American history is dominated by the stories of contentiousness between races and social classes, but there is a history that too often goes untaught and therefore unknown, and that is a history of whites and blacks working together for class stratification and political enfranchisement. No state has a stronger history of this than North Carolina. In the years after Reconstruction, poor whites and African-Americans joined political forces to form the Fusionist Party, and it rocked the political foundations anchored by old money in the state. So what the insiders did was go to great lengths to drive wedges between African-Americans and poor whites. This is what happens in The Last Ballad. Ella May realises that black mill workers and white mill workers have poverty and desperation in common. And mill owners went to great lengths to keep these groups separated.
Why is music such a powerful form of protest? Do you think the tradition of protest music is still alive?
Music is often a communal art: there is a performer and there is an audience, and sometimes the audience participates. This is especially true in the south, and even truer in the southern church. So much of the southern religious experience is performance-based, musical and narrative-driven. Fred Beal, the Massachusetts-born leader of the strike at Loray, must have understood the importance of music in Appalachia and other parts of the south. He encouraged strikers to sing, and Ella took it upon herself to write protest songs based on the melodies of popular songs. It gave the rallies a spiritual feel. It brought people together because they sang about the same things and understood that they faced the same struggles. Woody Guthrie followed in these footsteps, and so did Joan Baez and Billy Bragg and other protest singers. I believe that rap music is the strongest and most prolific protest music to come out of America since Vietnam and the Civil Rights era.