Among the finest historical fiction of 2020, Jess Walter’s novel “The Cold Millions” is one of the very best (the other two I’ve read this year that are as excellent as Walter’s novel are “The Pull of the Stars” and “An Elegant Woman”). Walters examines a relatively little known aspect of the development of The West, the attempt by the so-called “Wobblies” to unionize the workers in the mining and timber industries, headquartered in the very new city of Spokane, Washington (in the very early l900s). Two orphaned brothers, Gig and Rye, have landed there after the deaths of both their parents, and in spite of the genuine care and love each brother has for the other–daily existence is a virtual test of survival–the brothers are very different. Gig, the older, gets involved very quickly in the unionization campaign; he’s the high risk brother, prone to existential thinking (and the slow, slow reading of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”, reminding us of the power of ideas and of literature to move men’s souls). Rye, who’s only fifteen, is awed by Gig, who’s also quite a womanizer, and who meets and beds the local “Ursula The Great”, who stars in a theatrical act where she dances around a living cougar, and who’s also the mistress of the major mine-owning man in this newly booming town (well, booming for the rich: this man has built a house to resemble The Alhambra in Spain). We will, in the course of the novel, meet two different “Ursulas”, as one is forced to retire as she ages and is replaced by the more astute, quasi-feminist Ursula II. Temptation comes to Rye after his brother is jailed for attempting to speak in the streets of Spokane about unionizing; the very real Elizabeth Gurley Flynn is coming to town to speak publicly, raise funds, and help the movement along. Flynn’s one of the most fascinating characters in the novel; she’s still in her late teens when she takes off from home in the East, a recent Irish immigrant, to unionize in The West. and Flynn uses Rye in her stump speeches, as he was underage and an orphan when arrested and jailed, along with his brother, for attempting to utilize his freedom of speech.
Both freedom of speech and freedom of assembly underlie this novel’s structure; both are being undermined by corporate interests, who virtually tell the police when to break up the attempts of the Wobblies to meet and to exercise their Constitutionally mandated rights: these issues are what makes this novel so very topical right now, as we come to the end of The Trump era, wherein such issues have become all too real yet again. Rye, though, is much more interested in trying to make a normal life for himself, and we get glimmers of these hopes dotted throughout the novel, including the intensely moving scene when Rye goes into a fancy men’s haberdashery to purchase a pair of fur-lined gloves. Gig’s the fiery brother, and he’ll die both trying to save the union movement and literally to save Rye, who’s inadvertently being used by the mine owner to undermine union efforts. The then chief of police of Spokane, John Sullivan, is also a historically real persona, and a fascinating one , to boot; although he’s a flunky of the corporate interests, he is personally completely honest and makes a complex and fascinating character.
Walter is particularly strong in describing the difficulties of finding work and anything near a fair wage for the new immigrants pouring into The West; they all speak different languages, and alliances within and amongst them are based upon temporary interests, and cause rapid friendships to evolve and fall apart; America’s transience is beautifully rendered in this novel; “the cold millions” of the title are these men living in the fields in and around Spokane, or, at best, in flop house boarding houses when finances permit; food is hard to find and empathy rare, though it appears in the landlady who rents her back porch to the brothers and again in the persona of Ursula II (both women, we may note). The description of the railroads and the tiny towns that grow around them, where men have devolved almost into animals, are well written, and so are the plots that weave throughout the novel, and their philosophical underpinnings about the nature of man and his ultimate interests, rendered brilliantly through secondary characters (what motivates man: ideas? money?). One sees the horrid conditions under which men live and the extravagance of those who are the owners, as well as the persuasive oratory genius of Flynn herself.
Walter’s selection of this little known aspect of American history and its probable timeliness to the present makes this novel not only timely but also important. It’s brilliantly written, its characters fascinating, its history compellingly alive. It’s also a real page-turner, and I hope it finds a huge following.