The Cold Millions by Jess Walter

The free speech fight of 1909 in Spokane, Washington, was a civil disobedience action staged by the Industrial Workers of the World, also known as Wobblies, under the charge of the then nineteen-year-old firebrand Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. During this action, Wobblies would mount a soapbox and begin to speak. Each orator was arrested immediately. Within a month, Spokane’s jails were full to overflowing.

This is a fertile period in US history and one that serves as the backdrop to Jess Walter’s wonderful The Cold Millions. Peppered with real characters such as the aforementioned Gurley Flynn, police chief John Sullivan and labour lawyer Fred Moore, Walter introduces orphaned brothers Gig and Rye Dolan. At the ages of twenty-three and sixteen, the brothers are subsisting on seasonal work while sleeping rough. When the handsome and idealistic Gig joins the IWW and both brothers are locked up during the free- speech action, Gurley Flynn employs the acquitted, and underage, Rye to her cause. He accompanies her on a speaking tour whose main purpose is to raise enough money to engage the legendary lawyer Clarence Darrow and release the protesters. But with Gig in jail, the naïve Rye finds himself in the spotlight and open to manipulation.

The titular ‘Cold Millions’ refers to what we call the 99% today, and it’s a novel that shows us that a lot of the social injustices of 1909 are still being perpetuated. Walter alternates chapters with occasional deep dives into the backstory of its secondary characters, such as business-savvy show-woman Ursula the Great, French- speaking Native American man Jules, and the aging Pinkerton detective Del Dalveaux, who has seen it all and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. To juggle as many characters as Walter does, yet provide genuine surprises, is masterful. This is a brilliantly lucid historical epic

Jason Austin is a book buyer at Readings Carlton.

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Cover image for The Cold Millions

The Cold Millions

Jess Walter

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