The Cold Millions

Mysterious Book Report No. 421

by John Dwaine McKenna

Spokane, Washington, just after the turn of the 20th century is the setting for Edgar Award-winning author Jess Walter’s stunningly well-timed new novel entitled The Cold Millions (Harper, $28.99, 352 pages, ISBN 978-0-06-286808-4), which tells the story of the International Workers of the World, or IWW—also known as the Wobblies—beginning their fight for free speech . . . as defined by the right to  meet, solicit, form and ultimately organize a union . . . among the laborers of the timber and mining companies who were so prolific in the area at that time.  It’s a classic tale of the struggle between the haves and the have-nots to see who’s going to get a little bit bigger slice of the economic pie, during a time, like today, of extreme income disparity.

The novel, which is told from several different first and third-person points-of-view, begins in the year 1909 with a so-called peaceful demonstration, which soon turns into a full-on riot when police arrive to disperse the crowd of IWW unionists and organizers.  The cops, tools of the timber and mining magnates who control the city government, wade in with billyclubs, fists and blackjacks . . . busting heads and hauling the battered and bleeding working stiffs off to jail.  There, they’re packed into a jail cell so tightly that they can’t sit.

Their crime? Sedition.  Speaking against the government.  It’s a travesty, narrated at first by sixteen year-old Rye Dolan, a train-hopping drifter and hobo, who’s followed his older brother Gig into the labor wars of the early 20th century.  Gig is a proud union man, an IWW organizer and the second narrator.  Then there’s Ursula the Great, who sings in a steel cage to a mountain lion in her nightly vaudeville act, who’s a love interest of Gigs and a narrator to boot.  And other narrators abound: there’s Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a nineteen year-old progressive rabble-rouser; Sheriff Bill Sullivan; and oligarch Lem Brand, who owns much of the city.  They’re all trying to use the young man nick-named Rye for their own ambitious purposes, but in the end it’s he who lives to tell this epic tale of ordinary people during such an extraordinary moment in time and history . . . a period that’s eerily like today.  This novel is momentous, timely and beautifully rendered in lyrical prose that sings on each and every page.  Read it for yourself and see why the Mysterious Book Report predicts Cold Millions will be a monster and a smash hit . . . Yeah.  It’s that good!

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