Late in Jess Walter’s new novel, his protagonist realizes that he’s “living in a particular moment in history,” an era of turmoil that will reshape the nation.

In 2020, who among us can’t identify with this feeling?

“The Cold Millions,” another riveting tale from the author of the genre-straddling bestseller “Beautiful Ruins,” explores the clash between labor unions and robber barons that rattled the U.S. a century ago. With an expansive cast that includes anti-capitalist firebrands, menacing tycoons, a coalition of multifaceted, multiethnic itinerant workers and sundry “killers, detectives and anarchists,” this book captures the audacity, promise, ugliness and beauty of American life.

The novel stars the Dolan brothers, the surviving members of an Irish immigrant family decimated by bad fortune. Rye and Gig are, in the parlance of 1909, “floaters” — traveling workers who take short-term jobs at farms, mines and logging sites.

The Dolans have recently landed in Spokane, Wash., where the International Workers of the World — the union known as the Wobblies — is planning a demonstration to publicize the plight of temporary laborers. Men like the Dolans earn a dollar a day, a portion of which goes to shady employment brokers. Those suspected of joining the IWW or other labor guilds are subject to vicious harassment from crooked cops and goons backed by anti-union industrialists.

Timid Rye would rather avoid union rallies. But Gig, a man of big appetites whose courtship of a burlesque performer makes for a colorful subplot, decides they should attend the IWW meeting. The gathering is brutally broken up by police. Though Rye, 16, is soon freed from jail, Gig, who’s a bit older, is among hundreds held and terrorized for weeks.

This draws the notice of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a rousing union organizer who’s been “riling up camps from Seattle to Minneapolis,” Walter writes. One of several real-life historical figures in the novel, Flynn enlists Rye as a human prop, an impoverished “orphan” whose troubles, she tells would-be Wobblies, underscore the cruelty of unconstrained capitalism. Her monologues draw crowds — and enrage a ruthless tycoon.

Elizabeth and Rye’s eventful Pacific Northwest speaking tour takes place against an evocative backdrop. The nation is undergoing a dramatic shift — listen to those “hammers popping nonstop against the wild, a mad rush to log and pave” every acre. And as the gap between the rich and the working class — “the cold millions” of Walter’s title — grows more entrenched, the modern workers’ union emerges amid violent opposition.

Meanwhile, we watch Walter’s characters grow, none more than Rye, whose hard-knock path intersects with some of the era’s greatest struggles. In the 1910s, amid ongoing labor strife, a world war and a flu pandemic, he “wondered if the whole world wasn’t collapsing.” Fortunately, he was wrong.


Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York City.

The Cold Millions
By: Jess Walter.
Publisher: Harper, 352 pages, $28.99.