The Last Ballad

Finding the courage to create change

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Working the night shift six nights a week to support her four kids (with another on the way), Ella May Wiggins is tired, and desperate, and her $9-a-week paycheck barely keeps enough food on the table.

Her oldest daughter, Lilly, takes care of the younger children while Ella is at work. When three-year-old Rose gets a cough and high fever, Ella stays home to care for her, losing pay and falling further behind. She has lost a child before, though, and cannot bear to lose another one.

In Wiley Cash’s The Last Ballad, the combination of Ella May’s poverty and her unmarried status have ostracized her from the white community, so she lives outside the main town in a collection of shacks called Stumptown where all of her neighbors are black. Many of them are also friends and coworkers, as the mill she works in is the only mill that employs both black and white workers. It is North Carolina, 1929, in the Appalachian foothills, and Jim Crow is alive and well.

The mill in a neighboring community is trying to unionize, and Ella May becomes intrigued when she sees the flyer for a rally. She recognizes her servitude and the injustices perpetrated by her employer, but is also fearful of drawing attention to herself that might jeopardize her job. A combination of curiosity and desperation win out, however, and Ella decides to go to the rally on her day off to learn more about the union.

Once there, union organizers recognize that she has a moving story to tell, and convince her to take the stage. When she sings the refrain of a song she has written, “But understand, dear workers, our union they do fear. Let’s stand together, workers, and have a union here,” she wins the hearts of the gathered crowd and a new union organizer is born. The union agrees to pay Ella May slightly more than she makes at the mill if she will help them get workers signed up for the union.

Ella May immediately thinks of the plight of her friends and neighbors in Stumptown and decides to work toward unionizing black workers and integrating the union, an action that makes union leadership none too happy. And when a black labor organizer from the big city of New York comes to town, Ella May finds herself in the eye of a storm.

Chapters are told from various points of view, among them Ella May, a white police officer, and the black labor organizer, as well as a letter that Lilly, at age 75, writes to her nephew, describing the world his father grew up in. There is so much animosity between the mill management and the workers, the police and the labor organizers, it works well to allow each of the voices to speak for themselves.

The Last Ballad is inspired by the events of an actual textile mill strike in 1929 and, although it is nearly 90 years later, the themes of economic inequality, fear-mongering, racism and sexism are still relevant today and spotlight the heroic courage and compassion required to create change.

Lisa Gresham is the Collection Support Manager for Whatcom County Library System.

Smoking Crow
More Words...
The Immortalists
A date with death

It’s halfway through a humid summer in 1969 on New York City’s Lower East Side, and the four Gold siblings are restless. There is no air-conditioning in the house, and life seems to be happening to everyone else but them. Kids are getting wasted at Woodstock, there is rioting outside the…

more »
Quiet Wisdom
The Turtle of Oman

When news headlines emphasize violence and strife, it can be comforting to engross oneself in a “gentle read,” and Naomi Shihab Nye’s delightful novel The Turtle of Oman fills the bill.

Although intended for a grade-school audience, it’s appropriate for adult readers, too,…

more »
Love and Loss
Fighting for trans equality

Things are never as bad as they seem.

A brighter spot can always be found if you just look for it and there’s always something to be thankful for—a way of making yourself feel better because things aren’t as they seem.

And in the case of Sarah McBride’s new book, Tomorrow Will Be…

more »
Boynton Poetry Contest

8:00am|Whatcom County

Daffodil Festival

10:00am|La Conner and the Skagit Valley

Women's Conference Registration Deadline

9:00am|Bellwether Ballroom

Wild Things

9:30am|Whatcom Falls Park

Coffee Tasting

3:00pm|Camber Cafe

Food Not Bombs

4:00pm|Downtown Bellingham

Fourth Friday Art Walk

5:00pm|Historic Fairhaven

Bingo Night

6:00pm|The Majestic

From Auschwitz to America

7:00pm|Village Books

The Book of Moron

7:30pm|McIntyre Hall

Adventures and Brawls

8:00pm|Upfront Theatre

Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1
Daffodil Festival

10:00am|La Conner and the Skagit Valley

The Book of Moron

7:30pm|McIntyre Hall

Adventures and Brawls

8:00pm|Upfront Theatre

Pancake Breakfast

8:00am|American Legion Hall

NSEA Work Party

9:00am|Squalicum Creek Park

Native Plant Sale & Expo

9:00am|Whatcom Community College

Whatcom County Democrats Convention

10:00am|Bellingham High School

Rock & Gem Club Show

10:00am|Bloedel Donovan Community Center

Starting Your Vegetable Garden

10:00am|Blaine Library

March for Our Lives

10:00am|Bellingham City Hall

Walk for Water

10:00am|Fairhaven Village Green

Tax Help Available

12:30pm| First Congregational Church


1:00pm|Lincoln Theatre

Spring Show Opening Reception

2:00pm|River Gallery

Native Plants & Birds

2:00pm|Ferndale Library

A Conversation with Alan Friedlob

3:00pm|Deming Library

The Passage Home to Meuse

4:00pm|Lynden Village Books

Memory's Blade

7:00pm|Village Books

Contra Dance

7:00pm| Fairhaven Library

Shantala and Friends

7:00pm|Presence Studio

Ballroom Dance

7:30pm|Bellingham Senior Activity Center

Best Of Skagit Trove Web
Daffodil Festival

10:00am|La Conner and the Skagit Valley

Rock & Gem Club Show

10:00am|Bloedel Donovan Community Center

Rabbit Ride

8:00am|Fairhaven Bicycle

Audubon at the Museum

1:30pm|Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall

Local Bird and Plant Walk

2:00pm|Chuckanut Center

An Afternoon with Jack Gunter

2:00pm| Maple Hall

Whatcom Symphony Orchestra

3:00pm|Mount Baker Theatre

The Story of Big Ole

3:00pm|Everson Library

Art of Jazz

4:00pm|The Majestic


4:00pm|Village Books

Take Me to Church

8:00pm|Rumors Cabaret

see our complete calendar »

Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1 Trove Web Village Books Best Of Skagit