The Last Ballad

Written by Wiley Cash
Review by Rebecca Kightlinger

North Carolina, 1929. Twenty-eight-year-old Ella May has come down from the hills of Tennessee to the textile mills of North Carolina in search of a better life, but she finds only crushing poverty. Despite working full time, she cannot afford to feed and clothe her children. Learning of a union rally, she boards a truck “piloted by the young girl with the strange accent” and joins the strikers. Her voice and the ballads she has composed about her life make her a valuable asset to the union, and she is quickly recruited, earning a salary that allows her to risk her nine-dollar-a-week job and join the strikers.

But this is not only Ella’s fight, nor is this only her story. Author Wiley Cash reveals up front that Ella was murdered in that strike and later hailed as a heroine. “No one knows who did it or why,” relates Ella’s now elderly daughter, “although I have long suspected that at that time everyone knew who did it and there were many reasons why.”

Knowing the ending from the very start deprived me of the pleasure of wondering how Ella could possibly succeed and worrying about her as she faces down strikebreakers who decry her as a “commie bitch” and attack her from day one. But The Last Ballad is not a portrait of Ella; it’s a mural of late-1920s America depicting the clash of workers, mill owners, and strike breakers, each chapter entering the life of a character through detailed backstory and advancing the plot slowly and deliberately. Readers expecting a fast-moving, edge-of-the-seat story may be disappointed, but those who enjoy well-crafted life stories of many characters and seeing how those lives come together in a desperate cause will appreciate The Last Ballad. For them this book is recommended reading.