Words

The Cold Millions

Delivering a timely lesson

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Among the many excellent fiction writers in Washington state putting out great work these days—Jonathan Evison and Jim Lynch among them—Jess Walter (pictured) stands out for his ability to take on a wide variety of genres and excel in each.

Citizen Vince has a mobster-noir feel; The Zero is political satire; Over Tumbled Graves is a thriller. Perhaps his best-known to date, Beautiful Ruins, is a nostalgic love story. With The Cold Millions, Walter proves himself adept at character-driven historical fiction, delivering a timely lesson about the labor movement in Washington state and chronicling a bygone era where hardworking men could aspire to a comfortable life for themselves and their families.

First-generation Irish brothers Rye and Gig Dolan are just getting by in Spokane, Washington in 1909. Sixteen-year-old Rye dreams of buying a plot of land from his kindly Italian landlord so he can one day build a home of his own. Rye’s handsome older brother Gig is more world-weary and cynical, distracted by his romance with showgirl Ursula the Great and by his affiliation with the local Industrial Workers of the World.

The Wobblies, fed up by unfair labor practices, corrupt employment agencies and industrialists, and a system set up to exploit workers, have planned a series of civil disobedience actions in Spokane. Infamous agitator Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the “East Side Joan of Arc” is in town, and Gig aims to join the fight. Rye, more of a pacifist, nevertheless gets sucked in to support his older brother. After a bloody confrontation with police, nearly 400 protestors are beaten and jailed, Rye and Gig among them.

Because union lawyers are quick to negotiate Rye’s release, Rye is pressed into service as a poster child for police brutality and inhumane prison conditions. Gurley Flynn enlists him to stir up support among hardscrabble miners and loggers at camps across the West. Inspired by Gurley Flynn’s charisma and perhaps her pretty face, and intent on doing what he can to free his brother from jail, Rye goes along. What ensues is an adventure tale complete with spies, assassins, scheming capitalists and anarchists, along with a downtrodden collection of vagrants, burlesque dancers, hobos and tramps “living and scraping and fighting and dying… the cold millions with no chance in this world.”

Walter skillfully weaves in historical detail with imaginary characters in plausible situations. The tone and sweeping scope are reminiscent of E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, while there are elements that make this feel more like a Western. It’s certainly very grounded in Spokane, which at the time was a boomtown at the “intersection of Frontier and Civilized.”

Walter’s compassion and warmth towards his characters is evident, particularly for Rye, who is after all, still a kid, doing his darnedest to help his brother and eventually live a good life despite the odds against him.

When Walter flashes forward to Rye reading Gurley Flynn’s obituary in 1964, we get a sense for how life has played out for Rye, and that history is cyclical. From the Spokane Free Speech Fight of 1909 to the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s to today’s Black Lives Matter movement, what’s old is new again, and the fight continues.

Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System (WCLS). WCLS brings the power of sharing to rural Whatcom County, including a wide variety of online resources at http://www.wcls.org/info. Hours and services may have changed due to the pandemic, go to http://www.wcls.org or call (360) 305-3600 before you visit for the most up-to-date information. Whatcom County Library System is a separate entity from Bellingham Public Library, although the two systems often partner.

More ...
Wednesday
Origins and Evolutions Exhibit

11:00am

Starting this week, “Origins and Evolutions: Five Generations” can be seen from 11am-4pm Tues.-Thurs., and by appointment, at least through May 22 at Gallery Syre, 465 Stuart Rd. The show…

New Relics

11:00am

A “New Relics” exhibit can be perused from 11am-4pm Tuesday through Saturday through Jan. 30 at Allied Arts, 1418 Cornwall Ave. The exhibit features selections by Nikole Dixon, Jessica…

Energy Club

8:00am

From 8am-9pm, Sustainable Connections hosts an Energy Club Zoom meeting. The virtual event is a “quick and casual” meet-up to give energy-efficiency enthusiasts all of the tools, information…

BAAY Online Winter Classes

10:00am

Registration is still open for Bellingham Arts Academy for Youth’s online winter classes for kids and teens, which continue weekly on Zoom through early April. Students from ages 5 to 17 can…

Kitchen Kit

10:00am

Tiny Onion Cooking School and Bellingham Parks and Rec invite you into the kitchen for an all-ages “Kitchen Kit: Butter and Butterbeer” collaboration. From 3pm-6pm Fri., Jan. 29 or 10am-12pm…

Whatcom Art Market

11:00am

Works by as many as 45 Whatcom Art Guild members can be viewed from 11am-5pm Tuesdays through Sundays at Whatcom Art Market, 1103 11th St. Due to public safety concerns, masks are required…

Winter Warmers Cup Show Benefit

11:00am

An annual “Invitational Cup Show and Winter Warmers” exhibit and benefit can be perused from 11am-5pm Mondays through Saturdays, and 12pm-4pm Sundays through January at Good Earth Pottery,…

From Crime to Classroom

12:00pm

From 12pm-1:30pm, Bellingham City Club continues its efforts to shed light on difficult subjects by hosting special guest speaker Omari Amili of the Humanities Washington Speaker Bureau for a…

Teen Events with WCLS

3:00pm

Students in grades 6 to 12 can sign up for a variety of virtual events through Whatcom County Library System, including “Teen Reads” from 3pm-4pm Wednesdays, “Whatcom Teen Writers” from…

Murder at Andaman

6:00pm

At 6pm, celebrated local author Bharti Kirchner shares her new book, Murder at Andaman, at a virtual event hosted by Village Books. In the tome, private detective Maya Mallick is called when…

Thursday
Origins and Evolutions Exhibit

11:00am

Starting this week, “Origins and Evolutions: Five Generations” can be seen from 11am-4pm Tues.-Thurs., and by appointment, at least through May 22 at Gallery Syre, 465 Stuart Rd. The show…

New Relics

11:00am

A “New Relics” exhibit can be perused from 11am-4pm Tuesday through Saturday through Jan. 30 at Allied Arts, 1418 Cornwall Ave. The exhibit features selections by Nikole Dixon, Jessica…

Energy Club

8:00am

From 8am-9pm, Sustainable Connections hosts an Energy Club Zoom meeting. The virtual event is a “quick and casual” meet-up to give energy-efficiency enthusiasts all of the tools, information…

BAAY Online Winter Classes

10:00am

Registration is still open for Bellingham Arts Academy for Youth’s online winter classes for kids and teens, which continue weekly on Zoom through early April. Students from ages 5 to 17 can…

Kitchen Kit

10:00am

Tiny Onion Cooking School and Bellingham Parks and Rec invite you into the kitchen for an all-ages “Kitchen Kit: Butter and Butterbeer” collaboration. From 3pm-6pm Fri., Jan. 29 or 10am-12pm…

Whatcom Art Market

11:00am

Works by as many as 45 Whatcom Art Guild members can be viewed from 11am-5pm Tuesdays through Sundays at Whatcom Art Market, 1103 11th St. Due to public safety concerns, masks are required…

Winter Warmers Cup Show Benefit

11:00am

An annual “Invitational Cup Show and Winter Warmers” exhibit and benefit can be perused from 11am-5pm Mondays through Saturdays, and 12pm-4pm Sundays through January at Good Earth Pottery,…

From Crime to Classroom

12:00pm

From 12pm-1:30pm, Bellingham City Club continues its efforts to shed light on difficult subjects by hosting special guest speaker Omari Amili of the Humanities Washington Speaker Bureau for a…

Teen Events with WCLS

3:00pm

Students in grades 6 to 12 can sign up for a variety of virtual events through Whatcom County Library System, including “Teen Reads” from 3pm-4pm Wednesdays, “Whatcom Teen Writers” from…

Murder at Andaman

6:00pm

At 6pm, celebrated local author Bharti Kirchner shares her new book, Murder at Andaman, at a virtual event hosted by Village Books. In the tome, private detective Maya Mallick is called when…