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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Washington Post honors Walter’s novel ‘Cold Millions’

Dan Webster

Above: Spokane in 1909, the corner of Riverside and Post. (Photo: The Spokesman-Review)

Every year about this time, critics of all types begin looking back at the year in anticipation of compiling their “Best of the Year” lists.

I’m no different. Along with my “Movies 101” cohosts Mary Pat Treuthart and Nathan Weinbender, we come up with our respective Top 10 lists, which we usually broadcast in early January.

I long ago gave up calling my lists “best of,” though. I’m not even sure what the term “best” even means anymore, other than it involves ranking the 10 movies that I personally liked more than the hundreds of others I have seen.

That, though, is just me. Art all too often is a personal experience, and part of the fun of critiquing any type of art – from movies to TV shows, stage plays to literary efforts and so on – comes from debating the quality of that experience.

The two times I served on what used to be called the Washington Governor’s Writers Awards, the debates were lively but polite – the only hiccup coming one year when our group’s selection was second-guessed by some of the folks who administered the honors (as if, because we didn’t agree with what they thought should be an obvious winner, our opinions weren’t valid).

Whatever. Critics are going to continue coming up with such lists, and those who don’t agree with them are going to complain.

That said, I’m in no way going to complain about what the Washington Post is calling “The 10 Best Books of 2020.” That’s because one of my former colleagues, and one of Spokane’s best (there’s that term again) writers is on it.

The writer in question is Jess Walter, and the book that made the list is his most recent effort, “The Cold Millions.”

Explaining that the book revolves around two brothers who become involved in the free speech riots that roiled Spokane in 1909, the Post’s panel of editors and reviewers celebrated what Walter did with such a straight-from-the-history-books subject.

“The result could have been an earnest historical novel about the brutal struggle for fair wages,” the Post said, “but Walter has instead created a rip-roaring work of harrowing adventures and irresistible characters, including the real-life Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a pregnant 19-year-old who’s also an indomitable union firebrand.”

This description echoes the New York Times review, written by Joshua Ferris, which though a bit more restrained included this passage: “If a bit of burlesque creeps in around the edges of Walter’s showgirls, tramps and ardent idealists, as perhaps it should, very real violence and the tidal pull of history keep the book tethered. So do injustice, poverty, bigotry, ecological disaster. Turns out this tramp’s tale is a timely book, and its timeliness suggests an ethos: There is no place here for lofty speculation or counterfactuals, time machines or talking dogs.”

Ferris is certainly right about one thing: If nothing else, “The Cold Millions” is timely. And thanks to the Washington Post, the nation is once again reminded of something else.

Jess Walter is one of the best of those who labor in today’s literary trade.

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