It’s a turbulent time, driven by a stark, ridged divide in wealth.
Peaceful protests erupt in the street, disrupted by violent agitators and police brutality. Women struggle to be treated as equals. Those who feel oppressed by the selfishness of injustice want social change now.
This is the world of 1909 Spokane inside Jess Walter’s latest novel, “The Cold Millions.” But it could be America today. Walter expertly weaves a historical narrative around a world of the past not all that different from current events.
“The Cold Millions” could refer to the money of the people living in luxury on the newly built South Hill, seemingly oblivious to the suffering a few blocks away. They expect a rough and ragged police force to use any means necessary to make them feel safe.
The title, however, actually refers to the millions who can’t find a warm place to sleep at night, a hot meal at the end of a day of heavy labor or even a pair of gloves to keep their fingers from frostbite from the Washington winters. “Six-month millionaires and skunk-hobos and none in between,” as one character describes the city.
Such are the Dolan brothers, Gig and Rye. Gig has become caretaker of his younger brother after their parents’ death. Gig makes sure Rye catches the proper rail car to carry them across the West so they can find a campfire among the itinerant community of hobos and tramps in search of the next job. In 1909, a dollar is really a day’s wages.
But the morning Gig and Rye wake up in encampment on a ball field in Spokane sweeps them up into a storm of social unrest. This was a time when socialists and communists were real political parties, not merely hyperbole on social media.
Walter, who has established himself among America’s best contemporary novelists, weaves the tale within the colorful and rich details of his hometown. Walter’s treatment of the old, gritty streets of Spokane is reminiscent of the way Raymond Chandler wrote of Los Angeles. He also tells the story from different perspectives, allowing readers inside the minds of multiple characters revealing often deceitful motives.
Gig and Rye seek a sense of belonging and dream of a life of conquering the struggle for daily survival. Gig finds it in the Industrial Workers of the World, a union where everyone can belong. They are known to the South Hill elite and police as the Wobblies – rabble rousers whose fiery speeches inspired a citywide ban on free speech in Spokane.
The Wobblies, a real-life outfit as many other true details that Walter deftly stitches into his fictional narrative, respond by proclaiming a Free Speech Day. That brings out the cops to beat down the protesters and haul them off to jail, with the Dolan brothers caught up in the sweep.
But it is the women in this story, set in the decade before the 19th Amendment gave them the right to vote, who provide the real strength and courage.
There’s Mrs. Ricci, the boarding house mother who keeps the Dolan brothers from living in the gutter. Gemma, the niece of a man who befriends the Dolans on their journey from vagrancy to union crusaders, provides family Sunday dinners that give a glimpse of stability to lives of uncertainty.
The irrepressible Ursula the Great is a singer and dancer whose burlesque act with a caged cougar proves a box office smash at the Comique (which The Spokesman-Review hails as “a spectacle of indecency”). But Ursula is making her own path in a world where she says all a woman can own are her memories. She also is working harder to save the Dolans’ lives than either of them.
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the fireball union fighter whose speeches rouse burly, drunken workers, however, has the most impact. She sets off Rye on an internal conflict, weighing the burdens of fighting against the powerful who aim to keep that power at all costs.
Walter’s richly told story constantly challenges traditional notions of comfort and freedom.
Who is more independent? Is it the Dolan brothers seemingly free to go where their fancy takes them with a dog-eared copy of “War and Peace” in a knapsack? Or is it local tycoon Lem Brand, who can afford anything but seems imprisoned in his palatial home with a library of leather-bound books he’ll never read?
Many of the characters in this story will not live to see their battles build a thriving middle class that will, for a few decades in the latter part of the 20th century, comfort many for a brief period.
“The Cold Millions” is the story of building the American dream. For so many people today, as with Walter’s characters of a century ago, dream is all they can do.
Ron Sylvester has been a journalist for more than 40 years with publications including the Orange County Register, Las Vegas Sun, Wichita Eagle and USA Today. He currently lives in rural Kansas.
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