Monday, May 24, 2021

The Cold Millions by Jess Walter

What Jess Walter shows us in his 2020 novel The Cold Millions is that he is a wonderful story-teller, a fine historian, and like one of his characters guilty of “first-degree aggravated empathy.”

This lovely historical novel is on one hand simply a story of the love between two brothers, Gig and Rye Dolan who hop freight trains together, traveling from town to town and job to job. They are part of the cold millions, that is, the millions upon millions of workers who struggle day to day simply to live, while a few wealthy owners live lives of almost unfathomable wealth and luxury.

While Walter is quick to inform  us in his afterward that this is a book of fiction, he also makes it clear that some of his characters are based on real life people, one of whom, is “the great labor organizer, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn”,  a key character in the book. Gurley is a mesmerizing and powerful speaker and organizer. Even the skeptics listen when she speaks.

Listen brothers and sisters, have we ever seen such trying times? She went through a list of outrages, fifteen-hour workdays and women dying at their sewing machine, men crushed in cave-ins while their families got nothing, copper kings and shipping magnates living like royalty while poor workers couldn’t even afford a flop bed, families in tents and hovels, workers given no rights and tossed aside when they were too broken or sick or old to work.

Clearly Walter shares the sense of outrage expressed by Flynn. He tells us that his own father was a union man. Gig, the older brother joins the IWW, although he discourages his brother Rye from getting involved. While Walter’s sympathies are clearly with the so-called Wobblies, he carries on a kind of debate regarding the efficacy of their non-violent methods. One character, Early Reston, clearly thinks non-violent methods will not work, and that rather than piecemeal reform the whole structure must be blown apart. At times in the book both Gig and Ryan become disenchanted with the methods of the IWW.

Rye felt demoralized. It didn’t matter what he did, what Gurley did, what Fred Moore did, what any of them did. Somewhere there was a roomful of wealthy old men where everything was decided. Beliefs and convictions, lives and livelihoods, right and wrong—these had no place in that room, the scurrying of ants at the feet of a few rich men.

It made me think that Early Reston was right, in his way ... that maybe it was the castle that needed to be blown up...

While it is clearly the struggles between owners and labor that is the focus of this novel, the side stories are also fascinating. The story of Ursula the Great, a performer who enters a cage with a full grown cougar, and then strips to near nudity as the crowd looks on partly horrified, partly titillated.  There is also a sweet tale of budding love Rye feels for Gurley, although she is married and pregnant, and nothing comes of it.

I much appreciated the argument Walter has with himself throughout the book regarding the possibility of real change and the methods that can achieve it. At one point when Rye is called out as one of the Wobblies by a salesman:

Rye didn’t answer. But at that moment, he felt done with it all—done with the beatings, done with Taft, done with Lem Brand and Ursula, done pretending they could stand on soapboxes and draw justice out of the air. Early was right. Rye didn’t believe in anything but a job, a bed, some soup. 

If you read this novel, be sure to leave some good reading energy for the acknowledgments and the short closing essay by Walter: “The Undercurrents of History”.  Walter talks of his own growing up in Spokane, Washington, and of how “The World came to me in books.”

With The Cold Millions, I set out to write about the sort of working-class Spokane family in which I had grown up. My dad’s father, a rancher named Jess Walter, first arrived in Eastern Washington on a train he’d hopped as a vagrant field-worker; my mother’s dad, Ralph, was an itinerant laborer in the 1930s who later died on a construction site when a crane fell on him. My own father, Alfa Bruce Walter, was a lifetime steelworker and union leader who worked almost forty years in an aluminum rolling mill.

For those readers who want to go to original historical sources, Walter provides an extensive list of his own sources in addition to his personal experience. For all who have labored, and for all who feel keenly the injustices of the world, this is a must read, and it is also a wonderful story.


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