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.

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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.

Tulip Poster Artists, Past and Present

11:00am

The fifth annual “Tulip Poster Artists, Past and Present” exhibit can be seen from 11am-5pm Wednesday through Sunday through May 2 in Anacortes at the Scott Milo Gallery, 420 Commercial Ave.…

Scatter Sunshine

11:00am

From 11am-5pm Wednesday through Sunday, visit La Conner’s Pacific Northwest Quilt & Fiber Arts Museum, 703 S. Second St. Currently on display are “Scatter Sunshine: La Conner in Bloom…

The Work of Jesus Guillén

11:00am

“The Work of Jesus Guillen: An Artistic Legacy of Love and Courage” can be seen from 11am-4pm Fridays through Sundays through May 2 in La Conner at the Skagit County Historical Museum, 501 S.…

Rock, Paper, Paint

11:00am

“Rock, Paper, Paint” shows from 11am-4pm Fridays through Sundays through April 25 in Edison at i.e. gallery, 5800 Cains Court. The exhibit features new “drop” oil paintings by Allen Moe, rock…

Sculpture Northwest Exhibit

11:00am

The works of 15 Sculpture Northwest artists can be viewed both indoors and out from 11am-5pm Fridays through Sundays (and by appointment) through April 23 on Camano Island at Matzke Fine Art…

A Road Well Traveled

12:00pm

“Max Benjamin: A Road Well Traveled” can be seen from 12pm-4pm Thursdays through Sundays at La Conner’s Museum of Northwest Art, 121 First St. The solo exhibit featuring the work of the…

Seeds of Culture at Whatcom Museum

12:00pm

View “Seeds of Culture: The Portraits and Voices of Native American Women,” “Fluid Formations: The Legacy of Glass in the Pacific Northwest,” “Jac Trautman: The Specter of the Indigenous,”…

Art-iversary Exhibit

10:00am

From 10am-5:30pm Mondays through Saturdays through April 30, celebrate 20 years of ownership for Sheri Wright of Fourth Corner Frames, 311 W. Holly St. A wide variety of works are for sale as…

Seeds of Culture at Whatcom Museum

12:00pm

View “Seeds of Culture: The Portraits and Voices of Native American Women,” “Fluid Formations: The Legacy of Glass in the Pacific Northwest,” “Jac Trautman: The Specter of the Indigenous,”…