The Cold Millions

Written by Jess Walter
Review by David Drum

Set in early 20th-century Spokane, Washington, Jess Walter’s The Cold Millions is the gripping story of two Irish American brothers caught up in a bitter labor dispute that engulfs the whole town. Handsome Gregory Dolan, the older brother, is a member of the International Workers of the World (IWW), a committed Wobbly who pulls naïve younger brother Ryan into the fray a lot farther than he wants to be.

Along the way, the brothers become entangled with the wealthy capitalist Lemuel Brand, a beautiful vaudeville singer and animal tamer who bills herself as Ursula the Great, the firebrand labor organizer Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and many more dubious characters, including one so mean he could have jumped out of a Cormac McCarthy novel. When both brothers are arrested during a strike, and Ryan is released early, Brand pulls him under his wing and the complications begin.

The novel captures the flavor of tawdry, brawling, hard-drinking turn-of-the-century boomtown Spokane, and downtrodden people struggling to better themselves against powerful moneyed interests who will do whatever it takes to keep their workers down and profits up.

Although there are some fiery speeches, and the labor strife feels real, it is not the ultimate focus. The heart of this novel is the poignant relationship between the two brothers, and the acts of love and loyalty which keep them worrying about and pulling for one another in their long, lonely, eventful battle to survive.

Walter’s characters are nicely drawn, with some, such as Gurley-Flynn, fictionalized versions of historical characters living during that time. The novel is vividly written. It has several good plot twists that kept this reader turning pages, and a satisfying ending.