Just over a hundred years ago, Americans were battling over workers’ rights, police brutality, freedom of speech, and political corruption in ways that would feel remarkably familiar today. Cathy Lanigan reviews Jess Walter’s latest historical novel, The Cold Millions.
When you visit the underground exhibit floor of the Park City Museum on Main Street, you are met with the poorly lit, cold, and cramped jail which has been carefully preserved as it existed in the early 1900s. It was on a visit to this exhibit when I first heard of the Wobblies, a labor rights organization that worked to establish some protections for Park City mine workers. It is tempting to believe the exhibit was the inspiration for Jess Walters’ latest novel of historical fiction.
In The Cold Millions, the year is 1909 and the protagonist is Rye Dolan, a destitute teenager who arrives in Spokane, Washington. He finds his older brother has joined the Workers’ Rights organization known as the Wobblies and has made dangerous enemies of the mine owners, the lumber barons and much of the wealthy class.
Walter’s skillful storytelling delivers an immersive experience of the desperation of the times while still giving the reader a tense and engaging read. As in his previous novels, each of the secondary characters is fully articulated and human enough to bring the entire world to life. Many of the characters are actual people from history, such as the fiery and dedicated Elizabeth Gurley Flynn who crisscrossed the region agitating for freedom of speech, fair wages and worker safety.
From the stinking, fetid and overcrowded jail, to the conditions in the lumberjack and railroad camps to the polished and marbled halls of the gentlemen’s clubs, the world of Spokane in 1909 is fully alive in this novel.
The Cold Millions reads like a thriller while illuminating a period of history not often explored. It is available at your local library today.
For KPCW, this is Cathy Lanigan.