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342 pages, Hardcover
First published October 27, 2020
What was it about these steep, western, water-locked cities, Seattle, Spokane, San Francisco? All three I’d visited, and in all three, the money flowed straight uphill. It made me think of something I’d heard about the Orient, that water drained the opposite way there. Who wanted to live in a place where water spun backward or money flowed uphill. These towns that had no business being towns, straddling islands and bays and cliffs and canyons and waterfalls.---------------------------------------
It’s quite a thing when the world is upside down to hear someone say it don’t have to be—that a man could be paid enough to feed and house himself.The Cold Millions is a rollicking historical novel that focuses on the Free Speech Fight in Spokane, Washington, in 1909. We follow two brothers through this portrait of a seminal moment in the nation’s history, one that resonates with our world today. Gig (Gregory), 21, and Rye (Ryan) Dolan, 16, newly parentless itinerant laborers, are part of a wave of workers who travel to where the work is, following a recession that started with bank failures in the Panic of 1907.
They woke on a ball field—bums, tramps, hobos, stiffs. Two dozen of them spread out on bedrolls and baskets in a narrow floodplain just below the skid, past taverns, tanners, and tents, shotgun shacks hung like hounds tongues over the Spokane River. Seasonal work over, they floated in from mines and farms and log camps, filled every flop and boardinghouse, slept in parks and alleys and the pavilions of traveling preachers, and, on the night just past, this abandoned ball field, its infield littered with itinerants, vagrants, floaters, Americans.Spokane was one of the boom towns of the era. Workers from across the country headed there looking for work of any sort, in logging, mining, and agriculture. The city was a portal to the West with multiple train lines passing through on their routes to Seattle and other points west. Of course, wherever there is opportunity there is also exploitation. Getting any of those jobs required workers to go through “job sharks.” Many businesses offered job leads in return for a dollar. The sharks would split the fee with foremen, and workers would be let go a few weeks later, then have to pay again for another short-term job. They also had to pay for their own food, housing, and medical treatment should they be injured on the job. Work days extended to 12, even 15 hours. It was insane.
As I was doing research into Pinkertons, I came across James McPartland, who was probably the most famous Pinkerton detective of all time. Reading how many of these were from England and Scotland sent me on this sort of trail of creating a character who would speak in these sort of late 19th century, early 20th century British detectivisms. So I was reading about detective fiction and things and coming across the most wonderful phrases and Del announces himself, arriving in Spokane by train, saying “Spokane gave me the morbs,“ morbs being a morbid feeling, a sense of unease… Some of the things that Del said were some of my favorite things to write in the book. - from the Northwest Passages interviewWalter sees Del as a missing link between cowboy fiction and detective fiction, between the western and the noir. He is a pretty dark sort, and is great fun to read.
”…while I appreciate what you did back there, as long as you’re traveling with us I ask that you abide the I.W.W.’s code of nonviolence.”Early is an interesting, if somewhat opaque character, leaving us always wondering what is really going on with him.
“Nonviolence?” Reston stopped and gave a winking half smile. “When a mob intends to throw you in a river?”
“Especially then,” Gig said.
Reston laughed—a rusty sound like an old gate swinging open. “Good God,” he said, and tossed the club he’d been carrying. “I’ve fallen in with idealists.”
I did know from the beginning that I was writing about something that bedevils our culture right now, which is the massive gap between the wealthiest and the poorest. Billionaires in America made two trillion dollars during the pandemic. You’re living in a broken economic system when that happens. In 1909 the economic system was horribly broken… When I realized my characters were named Ryan and Gregory, I gave them the nicknames Gig and Rye, which to me was a wry nod at the gig economy that we live in now. The idea that driving for Lyft or delivering and being your own boss, having no health care, in many ways we have created an economy that mirrors 1909. We’re not climbing on trains and jumping off them to find work. But we still aren’t providing basic needs for a lot of people who are slipping further and further. - from the Northern Passages interviewWalter enjoys planting in his books references to other works. Jack London gets a brief shoutout, while War and Peace permeates. The brothers both spend time reading it. The structure of this book matches the structure of that one, with four sections and an epilogue. It mirrors as well a warts-and-all look at both the uppers and lowers. Lemuel Brand, as one might expect, comes in for an expected harsh look, but the labor leaders and more supportable lesser sorts are seen through a critical lens as well. Weaknesses are shown. Difficult moral choices are made.
He flushed with sadness, as if every moment of his life were occurring all at once—his sister dying in childbirth, his mother squirming in that one room flop, poor Danny [his late brother] sliding between wet logs, Gig in jail, and [a fellow worker] dead—and how many more? All people, except this rich cream, living and scraping and fighting and dying, and for what, nothing, the cold millions with no chance in this world.Gig is an idealist, but with some significant personal issues. Also a good person, Gig is brave and steadfast in opposing the dark side. A very working-class guy, but with intellectual curiosity, an autodidact, comfortable discussing Rousseau and Tolstoy, as well as more mundane concerns. But the sparks really fly when the secondary characters take the stage. Del Dalveaux, Ursula the Great, Early Reston, Gurley, Lem. One of the main characters is Spokane, Walter’s home, a boom town trying to define itself, rich with opportunity and corruption, containing great wealth and vast deprivation. Details of the town at the time make it come alive, both as a place that was physically dangerous yet artistically exciting. And on top of all that, there is a fair bit of humor sprinkled in, some of the LOL variety. Much needed and appreciated in this tale of a dark time.
A bum wanders and drinks
A tramp wanders and dreams
A hobo wanders and works
Hell, it took only your first day in a Montana flop or standing over your mother's unmarked grave to know that equal was the one thing all men were not. A few lived like kings, and the rest hugged the dirt until it cracked open and took them home.Set in Spokane, Washington in 1909, this book sets a fictional story within a real-life historical event: the Free Speech Fight led by teenager Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and the “Wobblies” of the Industrial Workers of the World union. Think Jack and Rose interacting with the Unsinkable Molly Brown in Titanic. Greg and Ryan Dolan arrive in Spokane looking for work. But while 16-year-old Ryan is content to work his way up within the system, his older brother Greg wants to get involved with the IWW union to change the system. As the story unfolds, both brothers get swept up into larger events that test their integrity and morality.
He flushed with sadness, as if every moment of his life were occurring all at once—his sister dying in childbirth, his mother squirming in that one-room flop, poor Danny sliding between wet logs, Gig in jail, and Jules dead—and how many more? All people, except this rich cream, living and scraping and fighting and dying, and for what, nothing, the cold millions with no chance in this world.
"I fell in love with my country--its rivers, prairies, forests, mountains, cities and people. . . . It could be a paradise on earth if it belonged to the people, not to a small owning class."-- Elizabeth Gurley Flynn
In the days after Gig left, Rye began to see that he was living in a particular moment in history.
Maybe this was obvious to other people, but it had never occurred to him. It was a strange, unwieldy thought, like opening a book and seeing yourself in its pages. Seemingly unrelated events— meeting Early Reston at the river that day, the free speech riot, Ursula the Great taking him to meet Lem Brand, traveling with Gurley Flynn, smuggling her story out to Seattle, maybe even Gig’s disappearance—these moments seemed linked, like events leading up to a war. And he supposed that was what they were in, a war— this skirmish between the IWW and the city was part of a larger battle fought in a thousand places, between company and labor, between rich and poor, between forces and sides he wasn’t sure he had understood before.
Part of this new perspective came from the fact that Rye was trying to read War and Peace in the evenings
It was too much. All of it, too much, and Rye cried at the too- muchness of it. This incredible room of books—how he wished Gig could spend a single day in such a room, two stories of leather and gilt volumes and a heated floor and brandy so sweet and rich it coated your insides. The thought of his bookish brother in that stone jail while he was here—it was all just too much.
The unfairness hit Rye not like sweet brandy but like a side ache…. he never could have imagined it, either. But now he knew, and he would know the next time he was curled up in a cold boxcar, that men lived like this, that there was such a difference between Lem Brand and him that Brand should live here and Rye nowhere.
He flushed with sadness, as if every moment of his life were occurring all at once—his sister dying in childbirth, his mother squirming in that one-room op, poor Danny sliding between wet logs, Gig in jail, and Jules dead—and how many more? All people, except this rich cream, living and scraping and fighting and dying, and for what, nothing, the cold millions with no chance in this world