The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash review – murder in the shadow of the mills

A portrait of the labour organiser Ella May Wiggins movingly evokes a fraught era in US history

In the late summer of 1929, Ella May Wiggins, a labour organiser, single mother and songwriter of note, was shot dead while preparing to lead a union meeting near the cotton mill town of Gastonia, North Carolina. While Wiggins’ short life and tragic death – she was killed a few days before what would have been her 29th birthday – have been written about before, in his fine new novel Wiley Cash breathes fresh life into the subject while also offering insight into a particularly fraught moment in US history. The Last Ballad is simultaneously the evocation of an exemplary individual and the portrait of an era.

Cash is crisply effective in his description of Ella May’s harsh daily experience in a cotton mill where poverty wages are exchanged for relentless labour that routinely ...