Walter, Jess, “The Cold Millions.” Big Text,Inc, Harper, New York, 2020
Jess Walter lives in Spokane, Washington. The book is about his town during 1909-10, the time of the great free speech fight of the Industrial Workers of the World. It’s fiction, but everything seems to fit. The point of view changes with each chapter, but the central character, by right of survival since his final chapter is the end of the book, is a teenager named Ryan Dolan. Dolan and his older brother are what we would today call migrant workers, but in their day were simply tramps.
The Spokane Free Speech fight is well noted in labor history, but nobody imagined what it may have been actually like in those days until this book. For example, we know that the IWW members were arrested after mounting soap boxes, one by one, and attempting to exercise their constitutional right to speak out. Many of them, just for irony’s sake, were arrested for having tried to read the Declaration of Independence. In all, over 500 workers were incarcerated in Spokane and suffered terribly.
The IWW’s strategy was to fill the jails until the public, especially taxpayers, demanded their release and respect for constitutional rights. It was nonviolent resistance long before Gandhi and Martin Luther King popularized the term. The greatest hero of the Spokane fight was IWW organizer Frank Little, but he barely appears in this book because he spent the entire period in jail. The Dolan brothers were in and out.
Fortunately for the readers, the other giant labor figure from Spokane is prominent in Walter’s depiction. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the “Rebel Girl” orator from the IWW, may well be credited with having originated the “fill the jails” strategy earlier in Missoula, Montana. She and Frank Little were successful there. Little carried the strategy forward several times in several western cities for some of the most romantic chapters in American labor history.
If you know your history, you know that Flynn was there and that the publicity she generated was largely responsible for the success in Spokane. You might not know, though, that she was nineteen years old and far-gone pregnant when she did it!
I have always imagined the IWW workers mounting their soapboxes in a more or less orderly fashion, then being handcuffed and led off by the police. That’s how civil disobedience is carried out in our day. But Walters makes it clear that it couldn’t have been orderly at all. He describes it as shrieking bedlam, and, when you think about it, you realize that it must have been as he says.
The whole book is like that. History alive and real.
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