I enjoyed Walter’s last book–Beautiful Ruins–so much, that I was eager to read The Cold Millions and have the same experience all over again. Well, it doesn’t happen like that. A good writer changes it up. Like Beautiful Ruins, there is a mix of historical and fictional characters in this new novel but it’s very different. I wasn’t disappointed.
The Cold Millions is set in Spokane, Washington in 1909 when the IWW, the workers’ union often known as the Wobblies, tried to hold a series of free speech rallies. Two brothers, Gig and Rye, have been drifting around Montana and Washington after the deaths of their parents and sister. They pick up jobs when they can and ride the rails to places where there might be work. Gig takes easily to this vagabond life, but Rye, only 17 years old, is not so sure this is the life for him. Gig worries that he can’t take care of Rye properly.
The brothers are drawn into the Wobblies’ world, caught up in the fervor for workers’ rights. Workers are the “cold millions” of the title, compared to the rich mining barons who run the town and live in warmth and luxury on the South Side. Enter Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the historical rabble rousing young woman whose fiery speeches, determination, and charisma keep the Spokane workers riled up.
The rich industrialists won’t give in to the workers’ demands and they have the means to pay off the Spokane police and hire thugs. How Gig and Rye are tested in their loyalties forms the core of the story. Walters portrays Spokane as a wild and woolly town and the dialogue is rich in colorful slang and equally colorful secondary characters. It’s easy to picture the setting: rainy, muddy, and cold, and filled with cheap hotels, tawdry saloons, and prostitutes. As the story develops, the reader becomes attached to Gig and Rye, especially Rye, who is so young and vulnerable. What will happen to the brothers in this soup of labor violence? The historical characters drive the plot but the brothers are the real beating heart of the story.