Given that Labor Day is nearly upon us, I have decided to focus this Storied Charlotte blog post on labor novels that take place in the Charlotte region. Not that many decades ago, the Charlotte area was known not for its banks but rather for its textile mills. I am reminded of this fact on a daily basis, for the house where I live started off as housing for the textile workers employed by Atherton Cotton Mills in what is now known as South End. Working conditions in our region’s textile mills were often far from ideal, and some of the workers in these textile mills responded to these conditions by participating in labor unions. These unions organized a number of strikes, the most famous of which was Gastonia’s Loray Mill Strike of 1929.
Over the years, numerous authors have written novels about the impact of the labor movement on the lives of textile workers in our region. For the purposes of today’s Storied Charlotte blog post, I will focus on three of these novels: Olive Tilford Dargan’s Call Home the Heart (1932), Doug Marlette’s The Bridge (2001), and Wiley Cash’s The Last Ballad (2017).
Olive Tilford Dargan’s Call Home the Heart originally came out under her pen name of Fielding Burke. The novel is largely set in Gastonia, and it deals with the Loray Mill Strike. The central character in the novel is a working-class woman named Ishma Waycaster. She moves from the Great Smokey Mountains to Gastonia in order to find work in a textile mill. Partially inspired by the strike leader Ella May Wiggins, this character becomes involved in the efforts to improve working conditions at the Loray Mill. The strike figures prominently in the conclusion of the novel, but most of the story focuses on the central character’s personal conflicts and her growing sense of desperation. Sometimes compared to Harriette Arnow’s The Dollmaker, Dargan’s Call Home the Heart is now recognized as one of best novels to come out of the labor movement. A writer for the Saturday Review described the book as “perhaps the best novel yet written of the industrial conflict in contemporary America.” The Feminist Press republished Call Home the Heart in 1983.
Doug Marlette is best remembered as The Charlotte Observer’s Pulitzer-Prize winning editorial cartoonist and creator of the Kudzu comic strip, but he also wrote two novels before his untimely death in a car accident in 2007. His first novel, The Bridge, takes place in a small North Carolina town where the central character, a newspaper cartoonist named Pick Cantrell, grew up. Pick returns to this town after his career takes a nose dive, and he reconnects with his grandmother, who is known as Mama Lucy. As the story progresses, Pick learns that his grandmother played a key role in the General Textile Strike of 1934. In many ways, The Bridge spans generations. The grandmother’s story and Pick’s story interconnect in unexpected ways. The Bridge was named best book of 2002 by the Southeastern Bookseller’s Association.
A native of Gastonia, Wiley Cash delves into the history of his boyhood hometown in The Last Ballad. I heard Cash talk about the origins of The Last Ballad when he spoke at the Charlotte Library’s Verse & Vino event in 2017. He mentioned that his parents and grandparents worked in the textile mills in the region, so he grew up having a general familiarity with the history of the textile industry. However, he went on to say that it wasn’t until he was in graduate school that he learned much about the Loray Mill Strike. He became fascinated with Ella May Wiggins, one of the leaders of the strike, and he decided to base The Last Ballad on her short but eventful life. In addition to being a labor organizer, she was a talented singer, and Cash became particularly interested in this aspect of her life. Cash tells the story of Ella May Wiggins through the voice of Ella May’s daughter Lilly, who shares the story of her mother’s life with her nephew some seventy-five years after the 1929 strike. The Last Ballad received the Southern Book Prize and the Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction.
All three of these novels emphasize the roles that women played in the history of the labor movement in our region. These novels bring to life the struggles of North Carolina’s textile workers and shed light of their efforts to improve their working conditions and provide a better future for their children. As we celebrate Labor Day, I think we should take a moment to reflect on the stories of the textile workers who played such an important role in the history of Charlotte and the surrounding communities. The stories of their lives and struggles are part of Storied Charlotte.