I like to think of that moment a writer is struck with the idea of turning a real-life event into a fictional work. Intimidation? Exhilaration? One emotion after the other? Everything at once?
Any writer would be comforted knowing there’s a framework of facts on which to build. Yet think of the thousand decisions still ahead. Invent characters? Stick with the facts? Embroider?
A new novel I suspect will serve as a model for any writer who wants to transform fact into fiction is Wiley Cash’s third and finest, “The Last Ballad,” based on the life of folk hero and balladeer Ella May Wiggins, a young mother murdered during Gastonia’s 1929 Loray Mill Strike.
What Cash has accomplished in terms of interest, vitality and even timeliness, speaks to his well-honed craft, especially his skill in creating a cohesive fabric of multiple points of view.
Cash, 40, grew up in Gastonia, and his parents and grandparents worked in mills in North and South Carolina for years. Yet, Cash had never heard of Ella May Wiggins or the Loray strike until he was in graduate school in Louisiana in the early 1990s.
I’m glad he did. He brings to vivid life Wiggins, who worked at American Mill No. 2 in Bessemer City in the 1920s, earning $9 a week for 72 hours work, as well as her husband, Johnny Wiggins, who takes off for parts unknown. Now Ella must leave her young children alone during her night shift, thankful for her black neighbors who will look in on them.
No wonder she feels hope when union organizers arrive in Gastonia. It doesn’t take them long to recognize this woman’s strengths: a charismatic songster with striking intelligence and a gift for uniting both black and white mill workers in the cause. When Ella May takes the stage and sings about the plight of working mothers and their sick babies, she sways hearts and minds. It’s clear that her songs are far more effective than their lectures and placards.
Meanwhile, the mill owners are frantic, convinced the organizers are out for more than better wages and reduced hours. They believe the strikers want to overthrow the government and destroy property and “kill, kill, kill.”
Creating character has always been a strength of Cash’s. In “The Last Ballad,” he allows character after character (many based on actual people) center stage.
We see Ella May scooping up from a dirty mill floor the three fingers a boy has lost in the belt, cradling them in her apron. We see her visiting her son Willie’s snow-covered grave; see her singing “The Mill Mother’s Song” she’d written as a love song to her children.
We see henpecked Verchel Park, maimed at the Cowpens Manufacturing Company, aware the town now views him as “hamstrung by his own incompetence.”
And an angry, demoralized Albert Roach, who had “slapped (a black man) in the face a few months ago for not getting off the sidewalk when a lady passed. ...”
We see greed, racism, anti-Semitism (“the Goldberg brothers, who owned American Mill No. 2 would be considered white but not American.”), desperation, fear, cruelty, poverty, heartbreak and, yes, courage.
The Loray Mill Strike of 1929 was the first major strike attempt in the South, a full decade before the strike movements across the South.
With his vibrant imagination, vigorous research, and his architectural skill in structuring this novel, Wiley Cash has lifted the events of the past into the present and immortalized a time that holds valuable lessons for our country today.
“The Last Ballad”
By Wiley Cash
Morrow, 372 pages. On sale Tuesday, Oct. 3.
7 p.m. Oct. 10 (in conversation with author Jill McCorkle) Quail Ridge Books, 4209-100 Lassiter Mill Road, North Hills, Raleigh.
7 p.m. Oct. 11 (in conversation with author Randall Kenan), Flyleaf Books, 752 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Chapel Hill.
7 p.m. Oct. 20 (in conversation with author Lee Smith), Regulator Bookshop, 720 Ninth St., Durham.