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Review: The Cold Millions, by Jess Walter
Harper, 2020. 337 pp. $29

Spokane, Washington, in 1909 makes a volatile mixture. Some townspeople get by, a few live in luxury, while a vast army of loggers, miners, prostitutes, and hobos struggles to exist. Into that cauldron leaps the I.W.W., the International Workers of the World, known as Wobblies, whose stated goal is to organize workers into a union that capital must recognize, and to do so without violence. For that, they are called anarchists, revolutionaries, subversives, and agitators, chiefly at the behest of Spokane’s wealthiest citizens, who own the mines, logging companies, real estate, flophouses, saloons, and brothels. But the Wobblies won’t back down and have planned a Free Speech demonstration; the local constabulary, corrupt to the core, will be ready.

Before that happens, however, a policeman is killed, and suspicion immediately falls on the migrant workers, tramps, and other “undesirables” who’ve floated into town. But the newcomers, among whom are sixteen-year-old Ryan (Rye) Dolan and his older brother Gregory (Gig), don’t know this yet. In fact, they know very little of what’s in store:

They woke on a ball field — bums, tramps, hobos, stiffs. Two dozen of them spread out on bedrolls and blankets in a narrow floodplain just below the skid, past taverns, tanners, and tents, shotgun shacks hung like hounds’ tongues over the Spokane River. Seasonal work over, they floated in from mines and farms and log camps, filled every flop and boardinghouse, slept in parks and alleys in the pavilions of traveling preachers and, on the night just past, this abandoned ball field, its infield littered with itinerants, vagrants, floaters, Americans.

Gig’s a Wobbly (and a drunk), while Rye devotes himself to one cause, trying to keep his older brother out of trouble. Pigs will fly before he succeeds. And even after a violent confrontation with vigilantes who offer them the choice between getting flung in the river or a broken head, the brothers have seen nothing yet. After all, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn will come to lead the Free Speech demonstration.

Joe Hill wrote this song about Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, 1915 (courtesy NYU Library via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Perhaps the most famous labor organizer in America at that time, Flynn, as Walter portrays her, is about the best stump speaker this side of Teddy Roosevelt and more than a match for any man foolish enough to debate her. But even the Wobblies’ labor allies wonder what a pretty, pregnant, nineteen-year-old “girl” is doing (a) away from her husband, and (b) speaking to workingmen, often in terms no modest wife would ever utter, even in private. The Dolan boys are smitten, especially Rye. I don’t blame him one bit.

With exceptional economy, prose, and storytelling punch, Walter justifies his considerable reputation with The Cold Millions. The narrative reads like a thriller about labor strife, with “no — and furthermore” thriving everywhere. Life’s a fight to the finish, and so much wrong blankets the landscape, you seldom know where right is hiding itself, let alone how to act accordingly. In other words, the novel captures the divisions and desperation of a bygone era that seem remarkably like the present.

Flynn is pure electricity, and you can see the sparks; the novel crackles whenever she appears. The Dolan brothers represent Everyman, men who’ve had hard luck and want only a fair chance to improve it. But as Ryan observes, “Hell, it took only your first day in a Montana flop or standing over your mother’s unmarked grave to know that equal was the one thing all men were not. A few lived like kings, and the rest hugged the dirt until it cracked open and took them home.”

What powerful stuff, and Walter deals it straight. There’s no sugarcoating, only an occasional kindness or flash of decency. Sometimes, you can tell the good guys and bad guys apart too easily, yet in the author’s defense, the stakes are such that there’s no straddling allowed. I do wish that Rye had more flaws; he makes mistakes, but usually out of naïveté, which he does his best to address. You pull for him, but I want to do so not just because he’s a trusting innocent. I want him to struggle more with evil instead of skirting it by instinct. I also get impatient with digressions into the backgrounds of minor characters, a few of whom wind up dead shortly thereafter, which feels unfair to the reader. Yet I’ll give Walter credit for insisting on fleshing everybody out, even if the back story becomes intrusive.

There’s also no arguing with the overall effect, which is breathtaking. Walter captures a time, place, and mindset with such brilliance, he makes it look easy. And as a fellow Washingtonian, I salute his effort to portray the Wobblies, who left their mark on the Pacific Northwest a century ago and more.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.