Review: The Cold Millions by Jess Walter


Title: The Cold Millions

Author: Jess Walter

Published: 18th February 2021, Viking

Status: Read February 2021 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

++++++

My Thoughts:

“All people, except this rich cream, living and scraping and fighting and dying, and for what, nothing, the cold millions with no chance in this world.”

The Cold Millions is a sweeping historical novel set at the beginning of the labor union movement in Spokane, Washington, focusing on two brothers, Gregory and Ryan Dolan. At 21, Gig is a charming, surprisingly articulate young man, Rye, only 16, is his brother’s shadow. Orphaned, they have joined the mass of itinerant workers, tramps riding the freight trains in search of work where they can find it. While Rye’s one wish is simple – a job, a home, a family; Gig gets wrapped up in the energy and chaos of the Free Speech Riots as The Industrial Workers of the World, aka Wobblies, fight for change. When the brothers are arrested during a riot, their paths diverge. While Gig endures a brutal incarceration, Rye is quickly released and is determined to free his brother. Soon he too is bound up in the cause, and is courted by a man set on stopping it.

Told with acumen, compassion, wit, and a hint of nostalgia, this story is ambitious in scope. Walter explores a dramatic period of social change and its issues – wealth vs poverty, ownership vs labour, rights vs responsibilities, nationalists vs immigrants, arguments that have still not been resolved in the US a century later. Yet this is also a coming-of-age story, an intimate tale of brotherhood, love, friendship, loyalty and betrayal, and even a murder mystery.

While Rye is the story’s anchor, there is a large cast of characters. Walter draws real historical figures into the novel including Police Chief John T. Sullivan who was a strict enforcer of law, and a vigorous defender of Spokane against the Wobblies, and their activities; the ‘redoubtable, estimable, formidable’ Elizabeth Gurley Flynn a young activist and orator, and takes inspiration from others to create a distinct, colourful cast. Brief vignettes from the perspectives of people who cross paths with the brothers interrupt the linear narrative, but also enrich it.

I feel Walters has been influenced by several classic American novels, particularly those by John Steinbeck, and perhaps Mark Twain and others, with similarities found in themes and characters.

While I don’t feel the connection with the history in the way an American might, The Cold Millions is an entertaining, fascinating, and unexpectedly timely novel.

++++++

Available from Penguin Australia

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