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'The Cold Millions': Jess Walter’s Historical Novel Is A Tale For Today

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Jess Walter

In Jess Walter’s latest novel, “The Cold Millions,” the Industrial Workers of the World, known popularly as the Wobblies, united to fight the repression of laborers and break the system of corruption and kickbacks that fleeced them and all their efforts for better working conditions and fair pay. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a 19-year-old orator of the movement known as “The Rebel Girl” and a small cast of other historical figures take center stage in this fictionalized account set in Spokane Washington in 1909 where two itinerant brothers are swept up by the violence and drama of that time.

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Highlights from the Interview with Jess Walter

On the way "the novel's heart is in the library"
As a kid who grew up believing in a sort of egalitarian nature of this country, that education and books were the social escalator, it was the way that you dreamed that everyone could sort of be equal. And so the title of the book comes from a moment when Rye is sitting in the library of a wealthy mining magnate and ostensibly the villain of the book, Lemuel Brand. And he's surrounded by a floor-to-ceiling library of leather-bound, gilded-edged books that this millionaire will never even crack, but they're only there for show. And in that moment, he comes to realize that it's not five or six or 10 levels separating him from this kind of wealth, but an infinite number and that this person has so much money. And it does break his heart for just a moment because he knows his brother couldn't even dream of a room like this with heated floors and brandy and books, a lifetime of books. And [he thinks of] Gig who has come across "War and Peace" on the great hobo highway trading books with other hobos, other well-read, learned hobos. It's really an emotional moment. And that connects with a scene in a Carnegie library where a librarian really treats Rye decently for the first time in the novel, the first sort of civilian, by giving him the later versions of "War and Peace." So I do feel like the novel's heart is in a library as probably mine is. I think sometimes when you're writing fiction, there are certain things about yourself you can't escape. And my romanticism is always sparked when somebody is handed a great book.

On writing female characters
It's really interesting to write female characters and give them agency at a time when, almost by law, they were not afforded agency. And you have Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who is a really irrepressible force of nature. You know, you have this 19-year-old, just standing on street corners, demanding rights for workers and free speech and women's rights. And if you're not careful, you can sort of imagine that that's how everyone could act. And she is singular, you know, that historical figure was... her audacity. I think you also need to see people who manage that world in different ways. Ursula the Great, manages it through her own charm and talent and through the desire of some of these men around her. Mrs. Ricci, who runs the boarding house, manages it through the kindness to these young men and maybe disappointment in her real sons. And then Gemma, who is another female character in the book and has to hide her ethnicity, hides the fact that her mother is Roma and is what would have been called "gypsy" at the time and that her father is native American. And so all those characters are managing the same world that Elizabeth Gurley Flynn is, but they're managing it in ways in which they have to work within the system, a very, unfair misogynistic system in which they are 10 years from having the right to vote, to own property. And so creating those characters and giving them a fullness, hopefully was a way to not only illustrate their characters, but to show, I think, how singular someone like Gurley Flynn was.

On the way this historical novel set in 1910 resonates today
This is a period of time in which immigrants were demonized in the way they have been the last four years. And this is the moment in history America first enters the lexicon as a political cudgel. And so when those immigrants are brown-skinned people from countries that some Americans look down upon, perhaps reading a novel about when immigrants from Serb and Slav countries, when Irish immigrants were looked down upon, when there were signs saying, "No Irish allowed," perhaps it causes in that moment of empathy, people to look at immigration differently, to look at those requests differently. This last summer, the protests were not theoretical. They were not thought-experiments. They were about life and death, about what it's like to be an African-American and to have to give your son a speech about what happens if he's beaten by law enforcement. And I think as a novelist, it's unfortunate that empathy becomes politics, that we don't start with empathy for other human beings in their experiences. But it's one of the great things about reading all fiction is that, if anyone who does that engages in being in someone else's point of view long enough, that I think it's one of the ways in which we can change and shape their very sense of what's behind some of these issues. And even if it doesn't change what you believe, you will at least allow yourself to see the world behind those people, for whom those issues are important.

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Yvette Benavides can be reached at bookpublic@tpr.org.