In many ways, it makes sense that “The Cold Millions” is the first Jess Walter novel to bring home a Washington State Book Award.
He’d been a finalist five times before, for the novels “Citizen Vince,” “The Zero,” “The Financial Lives of the Poets” and “Beautiful Ruins,” and the story collection “We Live in Water.” And while “Beautiful Ruins” was a runaway smash that spent months on the New York Times bestseller list, and “The Zero” was a finalist for the National Book Award, none of those books has what “The Cold Millions” has: Spokane as a vividly drawn featured character.
In his most “Spokane” novel since “Citizen Vince,” Walter said he was intentional in recreating his hometown in an atmospheric way. The judges noticed, said Linda Johns, co-manager of the Washington Center for the Book, which presents the annual prize. She noted that they discussed how “The Cold Millions” feels specific to Washington, but universal at the same time.
“I think especially because the book is about the state and about Spokane, and so steeped in that labor movement, it’s really nice to have it honored that way,” Walter said. “So much of its readership has been people in the state, so it feels fitting in that way.”
“Walter’s masterful use of historical and sensory details vividly evokes the era and issues of 1909 Spokane that continue to resonate today,” she said.
Among those issues is income inequality.
In 1909, Spokane city leaders passed an ordinance banning the public speaking on the streets, a moved aimed to keep organizers from the Industrial Workers of the World and other labor unions from rallying members. So the Wobblies fought back with a string of free-speech actions in which activist after activist would get up and speak, then be arrested. The idea was to stretch city resources by filling the jails.
Among the arrested in “The Cold Millions” are Gig Dolan and his teenage brother, Rye, two orphaned, itinerant workers and drifters who want honest pay for their work and a roof over their heads. Rye, 16, becomes a poster boy for the fight, and teams up with Wobbly firebrand Elizabeth Gurley Flynn – a real life activist who would go on to help found the American Civil Liberties Union – to raise money for the cause.
The story is populated by cops and dastardly fat cats, crooked bosses and a Cougar-taming striptease artist named Ursula the Great. Through it all runs Walter’s sly sense of humor and a pointed repudiation of the kinds of inequality that still exist in America .
“This book felt important from the moment it was released, and I’m thrilled that the Washington Center for the Book can claim Jess Walter as one of our state authors,” Johns said. “I feel so pleased each year when a Spokane author takes home the top award for fiction, and this year was no exception.”
Walter now joins Sharma Shields, Shawn Vestal, Bruce Holbert and Gregory Spatz as winners of the state’s top fiction prize who hail from the Spokane area. Other Spokane writers who have won Washington State Book Awards include poets Tod Marshall, Carolyn Kizer and Christopher Howell, young adult writers Stephanie Oakes, Chris Crutcher and Sherman Alexie, memoirist Paul Lindholdt and history writers Timothy Egan and Jack Nisbet.
Walter said he was inspired by the works of E.L. Doctorow, who was renowned for his ability to weave New York City into his storytelling.
“I love the way the place just exists so profoundly,” he said. “I wanted to be able to do that. I wanted Spokane to feel as epic as New York does in a book like ‘The Waterworks’ by E.L. Doctorow … or in a book like ‘Devil in the White City,’ the way Chicago during the (1893) World’s Fair just comes alive. I wanted Spokane to come alive like that, to become a living, breathing organism.”
He achieved that and more.
And as he virtually toured the country via Skype and Zoom to promote “The Cold Millions,” Walter said he has been surprised by how many people he met had a connection to Spokane.
“They’ll say, ‘I live in Chicago now, but my great-great grandfather worked for the Campbell family as an accountant.’ And then how many people’s family have connection to early labor. They were Wobblies or they were involved in things like that at those times,” he said. “I did this amazing Canadian book club, a big, Canadian book club, and so many of them who had lived anywhere in British Columbia grew up on Spokane TV stations. They would say, ‘I lived seven hours away, but I can still hum the Burgan’s Furniture song from commercials.’”
Fans of Walter won’t have to wait long to read more of his work. He submitted his upcoming story collection on Friday – it’s due out next summer.
In the meantime, one of the stories from that collection, “The Angel of Rome,” will be released on Audible this month, read by Edoardo Ballerini, who gave voice to Walter’s “Beautiful Ruins.”
Other finalists in the fiction category this year were “The Second Star,” by Alma Alexander, of Bellingham (Crossroad Press); “Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories,” by Donna Miscolta, of Seattle (Jaded Ibis Press); “Vera Violet,” by Melissa Anne Peterson, of Shelton (Counterpoint Press); and “The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows,” by Olivia Waite, of Seattle (Avon Impulse).
This marks the 55th year of the book award program, formerly called the Governor’s Writers Awards.
Washington Center for the Book is a partnership of The Seattle Public Library and the Washington State Library.
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org or (509) 459-5068.
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