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?
In his 1997 “Cold Mountain,” Charles Frazier destroyed our glorious and heroic images of the Civil War, replacing them with visions of brutal conflict, hunger, mean-spiritedness, treachery, disappointment and desertion.
“Cape Fear Rising,” Phillip Gerard’s 1994 fictional account of events in 1898, brought out the true facts of Wilmington’s nightmare racial conflict.
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’ shoes as she walks the two miles every evening from her hovel in Stumptown to American Textile Mill No. 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.
Cash follows her decision to support the strike at Loray Mills where her ballad singing at worker rallies mobilized audiences more than the speeches of union leaders. He relates how her actions provoked negative responses from union opponents that led to her death.
Along the way we meet people who framed her life: her no-good husband John, her no-good boyfriend Charlie, the Goldberg brothers who ran the mill where she worked, her African American co-worker and neighbor Violet, the union strike leaders, a 12-year-old worker who loses half his hand when it caught in the mill’s machinery, and Wiggins’s children as they struggle through hunger and illness.
The picture Cash paints is an ugly one, showing conditions of Wiggins and her fellow workers to be only a step or two away from serfdom and slavery.
Education for the workers or their children was a pipe dream, as Wiggins explained to a fictionalized U.S. Senator Lee Overman, who had told a striker she should be in school.
“Let me tell you something,” Wiggins shouted at Overman. “I can’t even send my own children to school. They ain’t got decent enough clothes to wear and I can’t afford to buy them none. I make nine dollars a week, and I work all night and leave them shut up in the house all by themselves. I had one of them sick this winter and I had to leave her there just coughing and crying.”
Writing in PineStraw, Cash, who grew up in Gastonia, tries to explain what made writing about Wiggins so difficult. “How could I possibly put words to the tragedies in her life and compress them on the page in a way that allowed readers to glean some semblance of her struggle?”
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 hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.