Review 1756: The Cold Millions

Best of Ten!

Sixteen-year-old Rye Dolan and his older brother Gig are wanderers through the Northwest, among thousands of other men looking for work when they can get it, in 1909. Indeed, the town of Spokane is teeming with them. It is a thriving town that has grown rapidly, and at first glance it seems to consist only of fabulously wealthy mine owners and the destitute.

The mine owners only accept workers through corrupt employment agents. Men pay a dollar, a day’s pay, for a referral for a job they may not get, and most of the money gets kicked back up the chain to the employer. Gig is a member of the IWW, or Wobblies, who are trying to recruit members to their union during a Free Speech Day that protests against the employment agents, the poor pay and working conditions, and the corrupt Spokane police department.

Rye isn’t so sure he believes in the union, but on Free Speech Day when the police begin beating and arresting the protesters, he is inspired to jump on a soapbox next to Gig and sing the union songs. So, he and Gig are arrested and thrown into jail along with 500 other men, into packed cells and brutal conditions.

Rye, because of his age, gets out of jail early with the help of a lawyer and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a crusading 19-year-old union firebrand (an actual historical figure). However, Rye sort of unwittingly makes a deal with Lem Brand, a mine owner, to give him information in exchange for getting Gig out of jail.

This novel vividly depicts the kinds of conditions that made unions evolve in the first place and the fight the unions had to stay in existence. Does that sound unexciting? Well, this novel has an appealing center around the two brothers, features a historical figure we should know more about, and is full of intrigue, action, and skullduggery. It is harrowing at times, alternating narrators among several characters who don’t always end up alive at the end of their narratives. I was enraptured.

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