The Last Ballad
By Wiley Cash. (William Morrow, 384 pages, $26.99.)
Powerful and poignant, North Carolina author Wiley Cash’s third and best novel tells the story of Ella May, an impoverished, imperfect and once again pregnant young woman who stumbles into the role of union activist at a textile mill in Bessemer City, N.C., in the late 1920s.
Ella works the night shift, barely making enough money to keep her four children alive. She chooses her men foolishly, but her friends wisely. Her story, which ends in blood, is told from several perspectives, including those of her eldest daughter, Lily, looking back on what happened to her mother when she herself is an old woman in 2005.
Lily captures the story’s chief theme when she writes, “I have spent much of my life thinking about … what it means to be on this earth, what it means to leave it, what of us is left behind once we are gone.”
Beyond Ella’s personal story, this is the very best kind of historical novel — one whose events are largely nonfiction, and whose characters, invented though they may be, probably closely resemble the souls who did walk the Earth during that time. Cash is a fine and subtle writer, who tells an American story painful in the way the most authentic American stories are — replete with personal, political, sexual, racial and class strife, yet redeemed by gritty individual and community faith in a better, fairer world.
By Jonathan Dee. (Random House, 374 pages, $28.)
What a curious book. A lengthy preamble compels with its protagonist’s unexpectedly jaded take on the fallout from the Sept. 11 attacks. The guy’s a jerk and can’t cope with how compassionate his fellow New Yorkers are in the aftermath. You don’t relish spending a whole novel with him. But hey, turns out you don’t.
The character disappears, and the actual book opens in Massachusetts, where housing contractor Mark Firth is trying to make ends meet in a tanking post-Sept. 11 economy and with a wife who’s lost faith in him. Enter Philip Hadi, a wealthy man who’s fled New York for a more secure location, and who proceeds to subtly transform the town into a private fiefdom. Mostly, the town loves it. He personally absorbs a tax hike and underwrites small businesses.
The premise strains credulity, but Dee has other story lines about people’s paranoia of terrorism, of high school slights never outgrown, of family tensions, of economic uncertainty that are genuine enough to oddly overshadow the Hadi story line. Of course, the sweet gig falls apart as Hadi needs to recoup and blithely sends the citizens back to reality, which they resent.
Then Dee, confoundingly, shifts again. The final chapter follows Firth’s teenage daughter, Haley, who is trying to find herself because, well, that’s what teens do. She can’t even articulate what she wants, but sleeping in a historic mansion might help. She’s busted, of course, and then — spoiler alert — the book ends. If Dee didn’t quite know how to start this novel, he sure doesn’t know how to end it. Yes, the middle has its moments. But there are only two book covers.