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The Cold Millions

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The author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Beautiful Ruins delivers another “literary miracle” (NPR)—a propulsive, richly entertaining novel about two brothers swept up in the turbulent class warfare of the early twentieth century.

The Dolans live by their wits, jumping freight trains and lining up for day work at crooked job agencies. While sixteen-year-old Rye yearns for a steady job and a home, his older brother, Gig, dreams of a better world, fighting alongside other union men for fair pay and decent treatment. Enter Ursula the Great, a vaudeville singer who performs with a live cougar and introduces the brothers to a far more dangerous creature: a mining magnate determined to keep his wealth and his hold on Ursula.

Dubious of Gig’s idealism, Rye finds himself drawn to a fearless nineteen-year-old activist and feminist named Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. But a storm is coming, threatening to overwhelm them all, and Rye will be forced to decide where he stands. Is it enough to win the occasional battle, even if you cannot win the war?

An intimate story of brotherhood, love, sacrifice, and betrayal set against the panoramic backdrop of an early twentieth-century America that eerily echoes our own time, The Cold Millions offers a kaleidoscopic portrait of a nation grappling with the chasm between rich and poor, between harsh realities and simple dreams. Featuring an unforgettable cast of cops and tramps, suffragists and socialists, madams and murderers, it is a tour de force from a “writer who has planted himself firmly in the first rank of American authors” (Boston Globe

342 pages, Hardcover

First published October 27, 2020

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About the author

Jess Walter

48 books2,108 followers
Jess Walter is the author of five novels and one nonfiction book. His work has been translated into more than 20 languages and his essays, short fiction, criticism and journalism have been widely published, in Details, Playboy, Newsweek, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe among many others.

Walter also writes screenplays and was the co-author of Christopher Darden’s 1996 bestseller In Contempt. He lives with his wife Anne and children, Brooklyn, Ava and Alec in his childhood home of Spokane, Washington.

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5 stars
4,907 (28%)
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223 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 29 of 2,462 reviews
Profile Image for David Putnam.
Author 16 books1,515 followers
November 5, 2020
I had high hopes for this book, this author is a master craftsman, a true wordsmith. I have enjoyed many of his other books. That’s not to say I did not enjoy this one, I did, just not to the degree I expected. I loved the characters, their plight, the time period and setting. What more could a reader ask?
Throughout the year I am stumbling in the dark looking for that great read that will immerse me into that ever elusive, “Fictive Dream.” I think most all avid readers are involved in this same hunt. If I’m lucky I find five out of a fifty. I was hoping The Cold Millions would be one of these books.
What kept me at arms-length in this story was the multitude of points of view that stopped the forward motion of the story. I loved the three primary characters and the main story thread. Each time the author switched, yet again, to another character the main story line came to a complete stop while the author gave backstory on the new character. Instead of having three or four stories braided into one plait the structure is a tree limp with many different branches. We go along the limb buried in the story and then come to a branch where we take a hard-right detour. The detours are masterfully done and could be character sketches or short stories in their own right. But I’m in it for the, Fictive Dream, that wonderful plait of stories lines woven and seamless that carry me away, and in the end, I regret that there isn’t more.
Would I recommend this book? Absolutely.
P.S. There is also a very strong political component in The Cold Millions, and it isn't that I'm against any use of political plot lines, but right now, I'm all full up on politics in general. This too could have influenced the three star vs four. :-)
David Putnam author of The Bruno Johnson series
Profile Image for Angela M .
1,286 reviews2,205 followers
October 19, 2020
While this is only the second novel by Jess Walter that I have read, he has found that place in my literary heart reserved for writers whose every novel I want to read so I’ve just added several of his other books to my to read list. Mostly it’s because the writing is so impeccable that I am compelled to reread some sentences so I can experience that wow feeing again. It’s also because this is historical fiction at its best, reimagining a time, a place, events that really happened with a cast of characters, some real and some fictional, the have and have nots, the honest and the crooked, some impassioned by a cause, others motivated by greed, some who just want a home, a normal life, but who all elicited an emotional response from me. None more than one of the protagonists, sixteen year old Ryan Dolan.

“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 unfairness hit Rye not like sweet brandy but like a side ache —a physical pain from the warmth of that chair...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....All people, except this rich cream, living and scraping and fighting and dying, and for what, nothing, the cold millions with no chance in the world.”

Walter takes the reader to the landscape of those times in the early 20th century in the Northwest, where two young brothers Rye and Gig are on road. With their family gone, they struggle to survive, finding work when they can, a meal when they can, and a place to rest their heads. They find themselves caught up in the struggle of the Labor movement, mixed up with a corrupt mine boss, an equally vile retired Pinkerton, in the middle of violence that ensues. But their lives are also touched by friends such as Jules, a Native American, one of my favorite characters and by Ursula the Great who sings and dances in a cage with a cougar, by Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the real life famed activist in the labor movement among other causes .

It’s one of those books that offers so much - a great story reflecting a slice of history, a coming of age story in some ways. It’s filled with captivating characters, friendship, the depth of brotherly love. I can’t recommend it enough.

I received a copy of this book from HarperCollins through Edelweiss.
Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,296 reviews120k followers
September 30, 2021
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.

Jess Walter - image from PBS

The local police, headed by Acting Police Chief John T. Sullivan, (a historical person from the time) made a regular practice of chasing out of town folks who had come there just looking for work, regarding them as undesirables. Thus the Wobblies, the International Workers of the World, the IWW. It was a growing union, eager to change working conditions for working people. The muckety-mucks in town and their tools in city government were none too happy about this, so had laws passed making any assembly of more than three people for public speaking or organizing illegal, with, of course, dispensation for churches and approved gatherings. The Wobblies decided to challenge this, staging the first of their Free Speech Fights. They would flood the city with union members. As soon as one soapbox speaker would be arrested, another would take his place. The idea was to overwhelm the city’s capacity, and negotiate for an end to the job sharks, and improved working conditions for the stiffs.

This postcard of a 1911 Spokane street helped inspire the novel -
Image from Inlander Magazine

Gig and Rye get caught up in (well, Gig was actually a union member and active participant in the operation, so not really caught up, so much as involved in) the impending class warfare mayhem. Gig also gets caught up with Ursula the Great, a vaudeville performer whose act includes a live cougar, and her in a state of undress. She offers more than mere physical assets, though. Ursula is one smart and tough cookie. Rye finds himself smitten with a woman of a very different sort. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn gets a considerable amount of screen time. A real historical figure, Gurley is one of several Walter incorporates into the story. We get a good look at her personal history and a strong sense of what a force of nature she was. A labor organizer with the IWW, Gurley was a gifted orator with a talent for speaking to working people. A hardened veteran by the time she arrives in Spokane, she is 19 years old, married and pregnant. The battle is engaged. Owners versus workers, free speech versus police oppression, non-violence versus beatings and murder, a prego firebrand and crowd favorite on the spot. Enough drama for ya?

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn – image from DrShute.com

In addition to Ursula and Gurley, Walter has filled the tale with a remarkable supporting cast. An oily billionaire sort, Lemuel Brand, weaves his webs, seeking to manipulate where possible, control where he can, a Mister Potter with a slicker façade. Del Dalveaux, an erstwhile Pinkerton, a Scot, and an alcoholic with a colorful vocabulary, using words unlikely to be heard on this side of the Atlantic all that much, is now contracting as a hit man.
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 interview
Walter 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.

Scene in a Municipal courtroom at arraignment of IWW Free Speech “rioters” - Image from libcom.org

Another colorful sort is Early Reston who falls in with Gig and Rye, and engages in some violence on their behalf when they are set upon by a mob while sleeping in a ball field.
”…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.”
“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.”
Early is an interesting, if somewhat opaque character, leaving us always wondering what is really going on with him.

Acting Police chief John T. Sullivan – image from DrShute.com

There is resonance from the situation in 1909 with today and with the sixties. Walter uses a 100-year frame for his tale, looking back from 1909, and forward to still living characters in 1964. The youth and passion of his leads is mirrored in the youth and passion of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, and is echoed again in the Black Lives Matter movement of today.
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 interview
Walter 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.

Lower Spokane Falls – c 1909 - image from CousinSamBlogspot.com

While the underlying social commentary may be clear, it would not be effectively delivered if the plot were leaden or the characters unrelatable. Suffice it to say that as he shows us the details of the time, the tail end of the Gilded Age, Walter keeps things moving along quite nicely. There is violence aplenty here, enough to satisfy fans of westerns, intrigue, mystery (this centers around a murder that takes place in the prologue) betrayals, bravery, high ideals, low character, and heroics. I did not find Rye, the main character, particularly dynamic. He is the eyes through which we witness events. He seems to stumble through the story, pushed and pulled by the forces around him, although he does find himself in a troubling moral quandary. He is relatable for being a good person forced to make difficult choices. He is also relatable for his embrace of the opportunity to learn. There is a wonderful scene in which Rye walks into the Carnegie library, and has an experience like Dorothy opening the door of her house once it has touched down in Oz. He learns also some of what the world is really about when he get a first-hand look at how the one percent live.
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.

Jess Walter is a writer in the top tier of American letters. The Cold Millions, his ninth novel, is a worthy addition to his oeuvre, engaging, moving, action-packed, informative, fun, and with a 3D depth that is ever so satisfying to take in. One can only hope that millions get to read this outstanding book. Those who miss it will very certainly be left out in the cold.
A bum wanders and drinks
A tramp wanders and dreams
A hobo wanders and works

Review first posted – November 6, 2020

Publication dates
----------October 3, 2020 - hardcover
----------September 28, 2021 - trade paperback

==========In the summer of 2019 GR reduced the allowable review size by 25%, from 20,000 to 15,000 characters. In order to accommodate the text beyond that I have moved the EXTRA STUFF segment of the review to the comments section directly below.

Profile Image for Liz.
2,026 reviews2,534 followers
December 2, 2020
4.5 stars, rounded up
This engrossing historical fiction takes us initially to Spokane, Washington, 1909. The 1907 recession is still causing the economy to reel. Workers are just starting to try to demand certain rights and the Wobblies (IWW) are attempting to organize. Enter the Dolan brothers, young men of no firm address, seeking work through the job agencies but also involved with the fledgling union.
Walters paints a detailed picture of the time and place. His description of certain scenes, whether riot or prison had me feeling I was right there. I literally was groaning and dodging the kicks and batons.
While Rye and Gig’s story is the main one, we also get the background of a plethora of secondary characters. These characters were more uneven in terms of holding my attention. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn Jones is the most interesting of the secondary characters, as she refuses to give up her fight on behalf of the workers. I didn’t realize until well into the book that she was real and the Spokane Free Speech Fight had actually occurred. Walters uses Ursula the Great, a performer, as a means to tap into the contrast between the life of the rich boss and that of the workers he employs. At one point, Rye is reading War and Peace and thinks to himself about Tolstoy managing to show not just the depth, but the breadth of life; how all the lives interconnect. Walters is obviously aiming for the same thing here. And overall, it works.
The book shows us the depth of human character - its strengths and weaknesses, how ideals falter when our loved ones are threatened. I found myself totally engaged in seeing how this would work out.
The narrators all do a fabulous job of bringing the characters to life. I’m sure the book is great to read, but for those that can choose between modes, I definitely recommend it as an audiobook.
Profile Image for Debbie.
441 reviews2,790 followers
May 5, 2021
Too much hype

This Debbie Downer was looking for an upper, but alas she didn’t find it. (You know it’s bad when I’m talking third person!) Before you throw tomatoes at me, let me say that I KNOW this is a good book. I KNOW the writer is fabulous. I just didn’t get pulled into the subject, which was the fight for workers’ rights. It was too political for me. So when I don’t like the subject and I get bored, all these nits keep flying around my head, insisting I drag my Complaint Board out of the shed.

Just a couple of sentences about the story before I start whining: It takes place in Spokane, Washington, in 1909, and it’s about two hobo brothers who are involved in the fight to get better working conditions and pay for the masses. They are so well-drawn! There is also a heroic woman activist, a couple of bad dudes, a bunch of hobos, a vaudeville performer, and a jail. There is some violence and there’s a clear view of the haves vs. the have-nots. I especially liked that it took place in my state; some stuff was familiar to me. The story is rich and the author is a master storyteller. Lots of wise observations and all said eloquently.

(For all of you who loved this book, you should stop right here—I know my complaints will be obnoxious.)

Complaint Board

-I don’t like history, politics, or causes much, really (I prefer the fantasyland of dear old fiction), but I usually like historical fiction that tricks me into learning a thing or two about the old days. Here, the facts seemed boring. I can’t quite put my finger on what the problem was, because most of the characters are interesting and there’s plenty of drama. And I for sure think it was an important cause. I guess that for me, it read too much like a history book; I was aware that it was informing me.

-Editorial nit: There’s a (super minor) character named Gemma. The author says in one place that her name came from a grandmother; in another place he says it came from a neighbor. Now, granted, this is a miniscule crime, but when something like this happens, I’m suddenly aware of the writer and his fallibility. I’m pulled out of the story, and some of the magic disappears for a bit.

-Pretty early on, there’s a character, Jules, whose past is not as it appears. I found the explanation confusing; I had to reread the chapter several times. Honk!

-One of the main characters, the political leader Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (that’s the real name of a hero from the time, turns out), seemed liked a stereotype—a person relentlessly fighting for a good cause. True, she was a strong, brave, and determined woman with progressive views, but there was a lot of rhetoric (and repetition) in her speeches—I hate rhetoric! She seemed one-dimensional and uninteresting. Had we learned more about her past or her thoughts, it would have helped flesh her out.

-Now, I’m gathering this is a stylistic choice by the author, but it’s a pet peeve of mine: At least two characters describe their own death. I hate that! It’s not right! If they died, how are they telling the story? Grrr!! An easy solution would be to use third person. I know the author was going for authenticity here—let’s hear what the guy has to say as he’s going out—but I can’t help but think of the character being a real person, telling me his story, so this doesn’t work for me.

-My favorite character, Ursula the Great, didn’t have a big enough role. She was a performer who did her act with a cougar! The explanation of how she managed to stay alive stretched the imagination, but regardless, I adored her and wanted her to have more air time.

-The dialogue of two of the players, Gig and Early, is too sophisticated; I didn’t buy their language or vocabularies. I’m guessing the author just wanted to show that hobos are smart, but he went overboard.

Am I sorry I read it? Hell no--I liked it okay. But did I love picking the book up? Not really. I like this writer’s style so I’ll be checking out his other works; I understand that he can write anything.

Thanks to Edelweiss for the advance copy.
Profile Image for Blaine.
749 reviews612 followers
March 23, 2021
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.
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.
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.

The story oozes with grit and rich detail. The way the employment agencies of the time were used to screw the working poor. Life in the underclass and the challenge of living in pre-WWI America. There are gangs and brothels, police brutality and corruption, socialists and anarchists, crosses and double crosses. It’s quite a tapestry to work within.

And yet, the story never really won me over. It’s a bit slow to start, and has a surprisingly long epilogue. The narrative primarily follows Ryan, but for occasional chapters will switch to the perspective of some other character. To their credit, these digressions flesh out some of the ensemble, link the characters in new ways, and depict aspects of American life not a part of the brothers’ story: a Native American experience, trying to pass for white, additional challenges faced by women. But several of these digressions lack the drama of the main story, and wind up causing the plot to idle.

Suppose someone wanted to write a novel about income inequality and the damage they believe it does to society, and about how they think the system is tilted too far towards employers at the expense of working people. But they felt that setting the novel in the present would be too politically charged. I imagine such a person would write a novel very much like The Cold Millions. It’s not preachy, because the themes are presented organically through what happens to the three main characters, but there’s no escaping the political message of the novel. The working poor are the heroes of the story and the powerful people are the villains, using unjust tactics to preserve an unfair status quo. It’s a good story, but it falls a bit short of the greatness it so plainly aspires to reach.
January 8, 2021
There are times when you walk into a library and a book calls out to you. This book falls in to category.

It was very well written with a fictional story that blended so well the facts of the times depicted. The banding together of workers into what would eventually become very powerful union movements was a telling statement on the trials, the hardships, and the deaths experienced by the men and women who fought so hard for workers to earn a decent wage. It depicted those who became wealthy on the backs of these workers as greedy, uncaring, and at times criminal in their dealings with workers.

A woman, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn,pregnant at the time of this story’s telling is the leader of the movement to organize and fight the injustices of those who attained wealth by the sweat of workers who toiled at dangerous and thankless labor for pennies. Elizabeth was a real person dedicated to worker service rights and free speech. She was a firebrand, a courageous woman, outspoken and unstoppable.

Two Irish brothers are followed in their struggles to support workers as they are imprisoned, one only sixteen at the time, for the simple task of exercising their First Amendment rights.

It is a testament to the times we are now experiencing with many out of work and many earning a wage unable to sustain them. Many are concerned with the seemingly eroding sense of free speech and this book written about the turn of the twentieth century portrays a world where free speech is squashed and those trying to effect change are silenced.

They say history repeats itself. Those who read this well done story will see many similarities to the times we live in.
Profile Image for Barbara.
1,341 reviews701 followers
January 5, 2021
I chose to listen to Jess Walter’s “The Cold Millions” narrated by an amazing cast: Edoardo Ballerini, Gary Farmer, Marin Ireland, Cassandra Campbell, MacLeod Andrews, Tim Gerard Reynolds, Mike Ortego, Rex Anderson, Charlie Thurston, and Frankie Corzo. It is the cast that provided this historical fiction story with the depth and richness of the saga of a turbulent time in America’s history. Walter embeds historical figures in his creative story which lends the reader to research the figures and events highlighted in the story.

The story is anchored by two vagrant brothers, Rye and Gig Dolan. Gig is twenty-three and idealistic, wanting a better world for the working man. Rye is only sixteen and wants a steady life since he’s living a life of poverty and uncertainty. The boys get mixed up in a “new” workers union, the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) and the 1909 Spokane Washington free speech fight. Both men end up jailed, and Rye gets sprung as a result of (the true historical figure) feminist Elizabeth Gurly Flynn’s influence.

Walter must have enjoyed writing his creative depiction of Gurly Flynn. He used actual events to moor his story and added very colorful events and speeches. Gurly figures prominently in this story. After listening to the story, I researched Flynn, and didn’t realize what an historical impact she had on our country. She was born in 1890, and at the tender age of 16 she gave her first speech to a Harlem Socialist Club entitled “What Socialism Will Do for Women” (she was expelled after her speech). That little historical bit is not in the novel, although after reading how Walter used her character in his story, I am not surprised.

Walter captures the time in American history well. He adds burlesque shows highlighting the women of such shows and how they survived the male dominated world. The police, who are both corrupt and some ethical are featured. The injustices to the working class and the brutality that was allowed at the time create a mesmerizing read.

Innocent Rye is the story’s mainstay. He just wants to get his brother out of jail, and he wants to live a life of stability. Poor Rye is used as a pawn and stooge. He is earnest in his desire to be good. He is drawn to the politics of the IWW, but only in that it will help him get his brother out of jail.

I highly recommend listening to the audible production of this fine novel. With all the various character voices, it allows the listener to create his/her own visual with the help of fine voices.
Profile Image for Betsy Robinson.
Author 9 books1,039 followers
June 27, 2020
Boy, is this a good book!

If I hadn't already been convinced that Jess Walter could write anything—a crime caper (Citizen Vince), a love story (Beautiful Ruins), short stories that range from heartbreaking to hilarious (We All Live in Water), a funny commercial literary novel (The Financial Lives of Poets), a nightmarish psychological story in the aftermath of 9/11 (The Zero), or a blatant literary writer's foray into money-making with a cop serial (Land of the Blind)—this complicated and highly dramatic but simply written historical novel about the beginning of the labor union movement in Spokane, Washington, and the nature of history, life and death, and war and peace writ transcendent would have convinced me.

It's 1909 and two brothers, Gig and Rye Dolan, are living the hobo lifestyle when they get involved in an uprising and demand for free speech. Heads are battered, people die, and the chasm between rich and poor, haves and have-nots as well as the systemic unfairness that perpetuates all this feel quite modern. Whether Jess Walter is writing an aging Indian, a stripper, a mining magnate, a hit man, or a feminist activist suffragist who suffers from "first-degree aggravated empathy," character is pitch perfect. The novel is a rollicking ride through the kind of demonstration and uprising that characterize every event when people reach their limit, fed up with being "scurrying . . . ants at the feet of a few rich men" and can no longer tolerate the hypocrisy in the American promise of equality and liberty for all. The story takes us into the bull's eye moment when "the cold millions"—those who can barely make do—demand to be allowed to benefit from the fruits of their labor.

The structure of this unpredictable epic is completely different from Walter's other works: first-person chapters that sparkle with character and sometimes laugh-out-loud humor or oofs of shock punctuate the third-person plot. But there is never a blip in the narrative line.


As I've said before, Jess Walter has writing chops! For a good time with a lot of learning on the side, read The Cold Millions.*

*Advanced reading copy provided by publisher.
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,737 reviews14.1k followers
December 31, 2020
At this time when our democracy is once again being threatened, Walters takes us back to 1909, and the fight for free speech, income equality and the right to make an honest, fairly paid living. The comparisons between then and now are palpable.

Gig and Rye are brothers, Rye only 16, as orphans Gig feels responsible for his younger brother and does his best to keep him safe. In Spokane, where this novel takes place this proves difficult, there is change coming, hard-fought change, and it is hard to stay in the sidelines. These two characters are wonderfully drawn, as are the other important characters in the book. Elizabeth Hurley Flynn is a young woman, a real person from the past, who takes up this fight as well as others. She is a tempest in a storm, a whirly gig and takes on men much older than she. She along with many fight for workers rights, free speech in a corrupt town, where the income disparity is on full display.

This is an historical novel, an adventure story, a story of many lossess and few wins. A story of humanity, highlighting the debt we owe those who came before, those who stood up and fought for what they believed was right. We need more of those now. The authors note was informative and appreciated.

"they killed the world and called it progress."

"cruelty and hope should never be served together."

"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."

ARC from Edelweiss.
Profile Image for Ron Charles.
1,034 reviews48.5k followers
October 29, 2020
In 2012, Jess Walter’s breakout bestseller, “Beautiful Ruins,” brought movieland hilariously and brilliantly to life. The story offered an enchanting vision of glamorous old wrecks — from Tinseltown to an Italian village to Richard Burton himself.

But now, with his new novel, “The Cold Millions,” Walter attempts to bring that same verve to the pitiless realm of Spokane, Wash., in 1909. Where once he satirized the meretricious appeal of Hollywood, movie stars and reality TV, here he’s hunkered down with homeless workers, railway tramps and union organizers.

The result should be an earnest historical novel about the brutal struggle for fair wages, but through the alchemy of Walter’s voice, “The Cold Millions” is a work of irresistible characters, harrowing adventures and rip-roaring fun. In a country of amnesiacs that observes Labor Day with all the energy of a repressed yawn, this story is a rousing celebration of the forgotten heroes who devoted their lives and shed their blood to ensure the dignity of American work. . . .

To read the rest of this review, go to The Washington Post:
Profile Image for Henk.
851 reviews
April 14, 2022
Surprisingly gripping, parsimonious, immersive and a real pageturner. The author excels in creating emotional and/or suspenseful moments in his narration, while keeping me on my toes and guessing on the path of the story
It’s easy to be disappointed in people, but we do our best, and maybe what a person is and what he do is not always the same.
Yes, but maybe it is?

I flew through this book in a day, going from hesitant with the historic setting and the seemingly clear cut conflict, to being fully immersed and invested. I am gladly rounding up my 4.5 stars for this reading experience.

In The Cold Millions we focus on societal developments in the second city of Washington state: Spokane. Observed through the eyes of two Irish orphans we are taken to the early 20th century and the struggle between labor and capital.
The tone of the book is immersive but at the start a lot is told instead of shown. And a risk with such a historic setting is a rather standard, simplistic tale developing of the poor being good and the less poor/rich being evil, but Jess Walter deftly shows us some moral struggles of his main characters, with someone being bought.

The vibe of workers reading Tolstoy and concerning themselves with Rousseau, free speech and the ownership of the means of production is maybe a bit idealistic but seen from another metric this is far from a sweet work: a lot of people die or are mistreated and traumatised.
The world of the book is full of racism, Italian and Irish (not to begin about how Native Americans are treated, and women as well) being looked at with suspicion, and it is hard to change the course of a life. There are frontier towns, there is infiltration and violence, agitations and hired men, all to stop the workers uniting too much for the like of the people running Spokane.

In this war between rich and poor (The world is tearing itself apart) everything eventually comes back together very parsimoniously, even the river scenes from another timeline.

Its not that Walter his writing is full with beautiful metaphors or the the plot with diverging paths between the brothers is so original: it is how the author excels in creating emotional and/or suspenseful moments in his narration. And how he along the way of the story makes you care for the characters. There are over the top killers, but most of the people in Spokane are just struggling and trying to get to a kind of safety. Many fail, but how Jess Walter writes their trajectories is impressive and I didn't expect upfront to enjoy this book as much as I did. Highly recommended!

But what was life if one invention after another?

Does it need to be possible to believe in it?

Everyone does everything for a little bit of money
Profile Image for Jill.
1,169 reviews1,642 followers
July 5, 2020
For years, readers have mulled what it means to be a good writer versus a great writer so let me add in my two cents: a good writer creates a fictional world and a great writer makes it impossible to look away.

With The Cold Millions, surely Jess Walter’s most ambitious book (and I’m a huge Jess Walter fan), this author lays claim to Great American Writer. Because this surely is a slice of America – the early 1900s where hobos, union agitators (Wobblys), tycoons, a red-haired vaudeville star, a shady police chief and on-the-make detectives comingle on the pages. Some are real – such as 19-year-old Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, an impassioned union organizer at a time when women were widely seen as nothing more but homemakers and baby-makers – and some are fictional, such as Dal Dalveaux and Early Reston, two Pinkerton detectives with fluid allegiances.

Yet at the focus of the novel are two orphaned brothers, 16 year old Rye and his 23 year old brother Gig, and it is through their eyes that we are privy to the action. This forward-moving tale is punctuated by intervals in which first-person characters recite their own stories or takes of what is going on. Without spoilers, readers need to pay particular attention to these intervals; what Walter does with them becomes increasingly evident and astonishing.

In addition to resurrecting a fascinating time of history, Jess Walter reveals social injustices that are timely today. It is no accident that both brothers are fans of Leo Tolstoy, who grew to believe that life is too complex and disordered and inherently unfair to ever conform to rules. As Rye evolves to recognize that whatever the little people do, there is a roomful of wealthy old men where everything is decided—and worse, that on some level, he wants to belong to that group—the story really takes on a new gravitas. “Beliefs and convictions, lives and livelihoods, right and wrong—these had no place in that room, the scurrying of ants at the feet of a few rich men.” This dichotomy never seems to be resolved.

This is just a darn good book, with universal themes of brotherhood and love, rich and poor, loyal and self-serving, dreams and realities and more. It straddles the genres of swashbuckling adventure, social justice, and historical fiction. In other words, it’s a winner.

Profile Image for Lisa.
1,469 reviews564 followers
April 3, 2021
[3+] Set in the early 1900s, The Cold Millions vividly portrays a time of violence and repression against workers and activists in Spokane. I liked the characters fine, especially Rye Dolan, and the historical details were educational, but for me, the novel didn't ever take off ... it was one long plateau. This novel is the second in a row (The Keepers of the House) where I've liked the epilogue better than the rest of the novel. As a reader, I need more than a satisfying epilogue.
Profile Image for Maureen.
330 reviews77 followers
November 3, 2020
5 stars
This is second novel that I have read by Jess Walter. I have previously read Beautiful Ruins, which I enjoyed very much.
I was fortunate to receive this advance reader copy from Goodreads and the publisher Harper Collins.
This is the historical fiction story of real life people and some fictional characters from the 1909-1910 Free Speech Riots in Spokane. It is a very engaging read.

The Dolan brothers, Gregory, (Gig) and Ryan (Rye) live their lives through adventure jumping from train to train looking for work and a place to sleep. They dream of a better world filled with freedom and better working conditions. Along the way they meet Elizabeth Gurley Flynn a 19 year old activist for free speech. Elizabeth is a real life character in the riots of 1909-1910. Gig gets involved with the International Workers of the World. Gig finds himself arrested and thrown in jail along with 500 others. Jail is deplorable. We witness the social injustice between the rich and poor, and how the rich control society. Very similar to today.

This novel is beautifully written portraying brotherhood, humanity and social injustice. The reader is immersed to Spokane in the early 20th century. You feel that you are there experiencing their pain.
This is a wonderful story that should be read by all.
Profile Image for Meike.
1,516 reviews2,461 followers
March 16, 2023
Okay, so this is an adventure novel about labor rights. Yes, seriously, and I'm here for it! Set in 1909 in Spokane (the author's home town), we follow the orphaned, homeless brothers Gig (23) and Rye (16) Dolan who have to fend for themselves as laborers and get involved in the free speech riots that were connected to the rising industrialization and the plight of the workers who, through unionizing and solidarity movements, aimed to gather strength and push for better conditions and pay. Full disclosure: As a German with French ancestors who lives right at the French border, so someone who grew up taking strong unions and regular strikes for granted, I've always felt like the US union system was kind of weak (no offense), especially in comparison to France. It seems like in the US, the myth that everyone can make it puts poor workers to shame, while here, 45 minutes from Karl Marx' home town, the system as such is more readily questioned.

This is why I was particularly excited to read about the American labor movement. Walter incorporates real historical characters into his fictional tale, like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and, very suiting considering the main topic, gives various people he shows the chance to speak from their perspectives, no matter whether the world around them would qualify them as influential or not. His writing is very colorful and flows naturally, which, I suppose, makes this novel also highly readable for people who picked this one up solely to get a captivating story and are usually no stans when it comes to political texts.

Apparently, the novel is based on stories the author heard from his grandfather who, as a young man, was hopping freight trains to find farm jobs during the Depression, much like the Dolan brothers. And the talent for engaging storytelling seems to run in the family, as Walter is an expert when it comes to setting scenes and controlling the construction of the multi-voiced plot. As far as engaging historical novels with a broad, cinematic appeal go, this is top notch.
Profile Image for Martie Nees Record.
673 reviews138 followers
August 1, 2020
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Harper/Collins
Pub. Date: Oct. 6, 2020

“Millions” is a richly entertaining historical novel that reconstructs the free speech riots that took place during the creation of the labor union during the early 1900s in Spokane, Washington. The novel is jam-packed with real-life people such as the passionate, 19-year-old union organizer, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (known as the Rebel Girl), the young labor lawyer, Fred Moore, and many others. Historical fiction is my favorite genre because I must have been asleep in my school days. For me, there is nothing better than learning while being entertained. Did you know that back then, union activists were called Wobblys? Dare I admit that I never heard of The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)? Well, at least I did know who the union-busting Pinkertons were.

The story reads like a John Steinbeck novel with strong shades of “Grapes of Wrath” and a hint of “East of Eden.” We meet two colorful Irish American brothers at ages twenty-one and sixteen. Like many other Americans in those years, they were anxious to work, but there was no work to be found. (Think of the 1954 movie, “On The Waterfront.” A century later but the same situation, where a hundred men are hoping to be randomly picked for a job that needs only a handful of workers). To eat, the brothers hop freight trains in search of employment. Once the job is finished, they move on to wherever else they think they might find work, fair pay, and decent treatment. The boys are considered hobos and unwanted vagrants who sleep, with the other unemployed, shivering on the cold ground under the nighttime sky. The cops usually beat and chase them out of town. The title of the book is referring to the millions who are poor and starving while the tycoons and the ungodly wealthy (in current days we refer to them as the 1% ) have no intention of sharing their wealth. There is a scene where the younger brother finds himself in the unusual position of being a guest in a millionaire’s house (spoiler: it is a set up). The boy cries seeing that such homes exist while he has no home at all.

Written in pristine prose, “Millions” features an unforgettable cast of Native Americans, recent immigrants, crooked cops—complete with a real-life shady police chief—tramps, suffragists, socialists, madams, and murderers. Not to mention, Ursula the Great, a fictional vaudeville singer who performs with a live cougar. The dashing older brother has an ongoing sexual relationship with Ursula the Great. The shy younger brother has a crush on Elizabeth Gurley Flynn; told you that you would be entertained. At times, it can feel that the author has taken on too many isms, but it doesn’t detract from the story because all sorts of civil movements were going on in that period. In reading this novel, you too will get lost in a fascinating tale and may learn a thing or two about the Rebel Girl and other rebel voices of this time in American History, which sounds eerily like the America we know today.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

Find all my book reviews at:

Profile Image for Linda.
Author 1 book153 followers
December 29, 2020
In 1909, the city council of Spokane, Washington, issued an ordinance that banned public speaking on the city’s streets. Its goal was to silence union organizing activities by the IWW (International Workers of the World or wobblies). The Wobblies retaliated by launching the Free Speech Fight. On November 9th, soapboxes were erected throughout the city; IWW representatives would ascend, begin to speak, and promptly be hauled off to jail. Close to 500 unionists were incarcerated.
Jess Walters recreates the pain and poverty that underlie this struggle in The Cold Millions, a compassionate work of historical fiction that examines workers' struggles in an age of extreme income inequality and political corruption. The story centers on two brothers Gig and Rye Dolan, who are living as vagrants, traveling through the west, searching for work, food, and shelter. Gig is an idealist and a romantic who wants to change the world, while his younger brother Rye is a skeptic who longs for a stable life. Both brothers become involved in the free speech fight and are incarcerated. Rye, who is just 16, is quickly released and travels with labor organizer Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (a real historical figure) on a trip to raise sufficient funds to hire Clarence Darrow to defend the jailed wobblies.
Walters brings fictional and historical characters to life with humor and wit. The writing is lively, engaging, and immerses the reader in this chaotic period in American history. I highly recommend it.
Profile Image for Elizabeth George.
Author 114 books4,824 followers
January 14, 2021
Jess Walter's new book is terrific and, in my opinion, destined to be a classic. Reminiscent of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, The Cold Millions documents a period of time in Spokane, Washington, in which the dividing line between rich and poor was about as profound as it is today, with the possible exception of today's ability to form labor unions without being beaten, robbed, jailed, murdered, or driven out of town on a rail. It follows the story of two brothers, Gig and Rye, who while loyal to each other, each pursue a different means to the end of survival. They begin as itinerant laborers who leap onto trains and catch rides to the next site of potential jobs but their paths deviate in Spokane with the jailing of Gig and the attempted heroism of Rye. The details of place are superlative and Jess Walter's ability to document a real world at the same time as he fictionalizes the characters within it is remarkable. It's quite an achievement.
Profile Image for Julie.
Author 6 books1,768 followers
January 3, 2021
Is there anything Jess Walter cannot write? Satire, black comedy, speculative, bleak contemporary, gentle comedy, literary suspense, straight-up historical fiction, creative non-fiction, investigative long-form. He is simply one of the most insightful, en pointe writers of contemporary American letters. A master, however humble and generous. And he's done it again with The Cold Millions.

Set in Spokane, Washington in 1909, this is a classic history of the American West. The Cold Millions is based on real-life events and figures of the rise of labor unions in the Pacific Northwest, as seen through the eyes of a second-generation Irish orphan turned hobo, Rye Dolan. Rye and his older brother, Gig, ride the rails and follow seasonal work from their home base of Spokane, but when Gig is jailed after a free speech protest, Rye's isolated world expands to include a nationally-renowned teenaged suffragette, a vaudeville performer who sings like an angel but is known for her nightly sets with a live cougar, a hard-boiled gun for hire, a displaced Native American raised by a French-Canadian and a host of minor characters that make this story sing. The robust plot is set against the backdrop of a booming timber town on the edge of a prairie, where mansions and slums vie for dominance in a singular landscape of rivers and mountains.

The Cold Millions is wonderfully old-fashioned, sepia-toned storytelling. It is deeply-satisfying, beautifully written, wise and magnificent. Highly recommended.
October 26, 2021
Okay. I liked it, but maybe at a different time I would have liked it more? For those who has HSP or other sensitive types it just felt like a lot with everything going on in the world. That aside I liked the writing style. The story kept me interested. I don't regret reading it one bit.
Profile Image for Lorna.
682 reviews367 followers
July 7, 2021
The Cold Millions: A Novel by Jess Walter was a sprawling historical fiction novel taking place in the early 1900s primarily in the state of Washington as there was a national movement and an uprising of the unions working for better wages and workers' safety as well as the continued movement of women's suffrage rights. At the fore of this tale are the endearing Dolan brothers, Ryan and Gregory, or or Rye and Gig. The Dolans left their family home in Whitehall, Montana, experiencing many adventures including riding the rails or living in hobo camps, as they began to make Spokane their home and finding work as they could. There is an irresistable thread of the importance of Tolstoy's War and Peace throughout the gripping story of the Dolan brothers that is both endearing and at times heartbreaking.

"But however much the Dolan brothers had grown to like Spokane, the city didn't exactly return their affections--seeing just two more bums in a city thick with them, a point Gig argued this way: A bum wanders and drinks. A tramp wanders and dreams. A hobo wanders and works."

Gregory Dolan, the more idealistic of the two brothers, joined other union leaders in the Industrial Workers of the World movement (IWW). And then Ryan Dolan becomes taken with the young nineteen year old union and labor organizer, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn as she comes to Spokane to fight for worker's rights powerfully speaking in favor of the movement.

"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

"All people, except this rich cream, living and scraping and fighting and dying, and for what, nothing, the cold millions with no chance in the world."
Profile Image for Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer.
1,777 reviews1,262 followers
February 18, 2021
Published in the UK 18/2/2021

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

This sprawling novel manages to be simultaneously:

An adventure/action book combining elements of the late-Western and early Detective/crime genres;

An examination of a fascinating point in US history, in the years immediately prior to World War I as the battle for American labour rights took place – with the role of the International Workers of the World (the Wobblies) trying to establish a more radical and broad based representation of workers rights than the more conventional trade and industry based skilled craft unions;

A fictionalisation of a real event – the Spokane Free Speech fight – a David and Goliath story of how a small group of radical, socialist activists attempt to mobilise itinerant workers/tramps and an underground press against industrial bosses, corrupt authorities and labour organisations more interested in exploiting the workforce – with anarchists looking to use the opportunity to push for more radical changes;

A study of a remarkable figure – Elizabeth Gurley Flynn – perhaps seen as an early 20th Century Greta Thunberg albeit with a rather more cavalier approach to risking her own personal health and safety – and that of her unborn baby - in direct action;

A coming-of-age story of a younger brother caught up in a series of events and with a cast of characters with much deeper repercussions and motivations than his own simple focus on survival and the next day – some of whom (like Flynn) inspire him but many of whom (including it has to be said Flynn) exploit his naiveite – this character (Rye) is effectively the main third party point of view character for the main linear part of the narrative;

A book with a sweeping cast of remarkable and memorable characters – including: a ruthless Scottish-descended agency detective turned murderer-for-hire; a good looking down and out (Rye’s brother) with a penchant for alcohol, women and a half-volume of War and Peace; a vaudeville performer whose act culminates in a live mountain lion eating her bustier; a Spokane Indian with a penchant for storytelling and for laughter but with a hidden family-secret; a mysterious character who at different times seems an assassin/ a down-and-out/a double-agent/a provocateur aiming to prevent any de-escalation/an anarchist terrorist. Many of these characters (but very pointedly not the last) have their backstories told in separate first party sections which effectively break up the linear narrative – although which later serve to continue and expand it from other points of view. One of my questions on the book would be why a fictional Rye rather than a fictionalised Elizabeth is not the main character – but I think this is addressed in Elizabeth’s own first party section where she comments frequently on how the courts and authorities automatically assume there is a man or men “pulling my strings” and perhaps the author felt this would be too much like appropriation;

A partial retelling of “War and Peace” – with Rye explicitly drawing on elements of that sprawling novel as analogies for understanding what he sees around him

An examination of wealth divides at a time when a huge rise in American industry had lead to a massive divide between a group of the newly super-rich and their exploited and unregulated labor force – one of the pivotal parts of the book is when Rye visits the house of the local industrial magnate and conscious of his brother’s much loved half-copy of “War and Peace” is physically shocked when the magnates library contains an unopened and unread full set (see my closing quote)

An analogy for 2020 – just as one example, Rye’s brother Gregory is known as Gig – a very obvious link between the world of unregulated labour of the early 1910s and that of 110 years later with the Gig economy; a second (which has struck me forcefully in the week I read this book) is respectable Americans using the “threat” of “socialism” as a justification for turning a blind eye to dark deeds

Overall though I found it a very enjoyable and particularly worthwhile read - if very different from my normal literary fare.

My thanks to Penguin General UK for an ARC via NetGalley.

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
Profile Image for Therese.
320 reviews11 followers
April 11, 2021
I wouldn’t necessarily have picked up this book based on the topic of the fight for worker’s rights in 1909 Spokane, Washington, but having read and thoroughly enjoyed Beautiful Ruins by this author, I was eager to give this a try.

This historical fiction is centered around the early life of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who played a prominent role in the International Workers of the World, later cofounded the ACLU, a who was dynamic speaker and feminist before her time. From that perspective, this was an interesting glimpse into that part of history that I was unfamiliar with. This is blended into the fictional story of two tramp brothers that get caught up in the intrigue between a rich mining magnate in the town who wants to tamp down the organized labor movement at any cost, and led by Gurley Flynn, the push to drive the movement forward.

Like the other book I read by this author, this was beautiful written, drawing you deep into the story and making you care about the characters.

Highly recommended!
Profile Image for David.
659 reviews315 followers
August 8, 2021
16 year old Rye Dolan and his older brother Gig are a part of the cold millions, two orphans among the thousands of wandering labourers looking for work at the turn of the century. We find them in Spokane Washington, Gig's head filled with the righteous fire of the Industrial Workers of the World or the Wobblies. They're a labour movement looking to organize mine workers against corrupt employment agencies, the brutal tactics that steal their wages and the dangerous work they're subjected to. The Wobblies gathered in protest and hundreds were subsequently beaten and jailed in brutal, inhuman conditions.

It's slow going for the first half with countless character digressions and backstories. The book seems almost unwilling to set clear stakes and move forward but Walters is just setting the scene and building tensions across a slew of characters. It's when Rye is released from prison that things start to pick up steam. Freed on account of his age, Rye finds himself travelling with the "East Side Joan of Arc" the "she-dog of anarchy" a feisty union organizer and labor activist who happens to be 19, pregnant and very real. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was very much a leading member of the Industrial Workers of the World and would go on to be a founding member of the ACLU.

We have a rich mining magnate, double-crossing agitators, thuggish police officers, a burlesque actress, and lots of murder and mayhem to close the book off. Rye is caught in the middle of all of it all but as Gig wrly notes; “We were flies buzzing around the heads of millionaires, fooling ourselves that we had power because they couldn’t possibly swat us all.” Disinformation campaigns, the downtrodden working against their own better interests, moral compromises and the heavy gravitational pull of the wealthy sounds just as familiar a century ago as it is now. A great read but one I couldn't help but wish was a little tighter in the telling.
Profile Image for Kasa Cotugno.
2,354 reviews453 followers
November 3, 2020
This is the kind of rollicking historical fiction that reminds me mostly of the work of E. L. Doctorow, with its huge cast consisting of both fictional and real characters, and its opening up of a segment of American history that seldom gets a close look in history classes. Set in Washington State in 1909, Spokane but also Seattle, we learn of the union movement, stumping for free speech, the manipulators, the anarchists, the crooks, the rascals and the saints, mostly told through the eyes of two young brothers who want to just make a living and end up getting caught up in it all. The audible version is well cast with a diverse group of actors that bring it to life.
Profile Image for Jordan (Jordy’s Book Club).
374 reviews17.9k followers
January 12, 2021
QUICK TAKE: I'm a huge Jess Walter fan, but even I paused before picking up this story of unionizing brothers in the 1900s (sounds riveting, haha). I should have trusted Jess, because this ended up being one of the bigger surprises of the year for me. Captivating storytelling, incredibly well written characters, a plot that moves at a quick clip, and educational as well! If you haven't read A BEAUTIFUL RUIN yet, I highly recommend you start there, but this was a fantastic follow-up.
Profile Image for Mary Lins.
847 reviews116 followers
May 29, 2020
Full disclosure, I’m a huge fan of Jess Walter’s novels and short stories. I “discovered” him while reading “Beautiful Ruins” in 2012, and immediately consumed his entire oeuvre. So I was thrilled to be able to pre-review “The Cold Millions” which will be published in October. When I read this novel, I was still in COVID-19 “stay at home/work from home” mode, and this novel gave me a wonderful chance to escape to Spokane, Washington in 1909, where things are even worse than they are here!

The primary protagonists are two young brothers, Gig and Rye Dolan: orphans, occasional tramps, hobos, wanderers, adventurers. They are constantly seeking honest work and honest pay, but in a town that is “union unfriendly” (to understate the case) they are constantly fighting an uphill battle, along with their fellow “cold millions” of oppressed and marginalized laborers. This story of corruption, free speech, and violent union resistance, is based on true occurrences and is peopled with “real people”, though Walter urges us to read it all as fiction.

Jess Walter never disappoints; all his trademark wit is here, with an interesting and engaging plot, and a fascinating historical setting. But make no mistake, “The Cold Millions”, is a novel chock-full of characters that you won’t be able to tear your reading eyes away from, and whom you will miss when you’re done! Some of them are only contained in a few pages, yet Walter so skillfully draws them that you feel you’ve known them deeply. Even the most “villainest villain” is a pleasure to read about. One of them even has the name Del Dalveaux – best villain name since “Snidely Whiplash”!

This host of characters who come in and out of Gig and Rye’s story will delight, amuse, instruct, and even break your heart. My favorite: Ursula the Great! A young woman who stars in what the town’s up-righteous call “a spectacle of indecency” that includes a live cougar and some light stripping.

I’d like to comment on a highly effective narrative technique Walter uses to provide pathos and also ratchet up tension and suspense, without spoiling it for anyone. I will only say that the sections of the novel that were not chapters, but were first person narratives, were utterly brilliant. I held my breath through each and every one!
Profile Image for Book Concierge.
2,770 reviews332 followers
November 29, 2022
Digital audiobook performed by Edoardo Ballerini, Gary Farmer, Marin Ireland, Cassandra Campbell, MacLeod Andrews, Tim Gerard Reynolds, Mike Ortego, Rex Anderson, Charlie Thurston, and Frankie Corzo.

Set in the early twentieth century, this novel focuses on the two Dolan brothers: sixteen-year-old Rye and his older brother Gig. Rye just wants a steady job and a home. Gig is more idealistic, fighting along other men to form unions and demand fair wages and better working conditions. Together, they live by their wits – hopping freights and forming alliances with those they feel might be able to help them.

In addition to the two Dolan brothers, Walter populates the work with a wide variety of memorable characters, from Jules (a Native American from Coeur d’Alene) to Ursula the Great (a vaudeville singer who performs with a live cougar) to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (a nineteen-year-old feminist) to Lemuel Brand (a wealthy mining magnate). There are plots and subplots, twists and turns, allies who are really enemies, double and triple crosses, good guys who are really bad guys (and vice versa).

Based on actual events in 1909 Spokane, Washington (the Free Speech Fight and the formation of the International Workers of the World), at the novel’s core is a class struggle that is reminiscent of what America is undergoing now just over a hundred years later.

The story is told from multiple characters’ points of view, and some scenes are related more than once, giving the reader additional insight as the point of view changes in the same scenario. Walter has the ability to really put the reader right into the heart of the scene; I practically heard the sound of the train on the tracks, smelled the odor of unwashed bodies, felt the chill of a cold jail cell.

Walter is a masterful storyteller and I was engaged and interested from beginning to end.

I listened to the audio which was masterfully performed by a cast of talented voice artists. This really brought the characters to life for me and made it easier to discern the changes in point of view. However, I think the complexity of the story might be better appreciated if read in text first.

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