“The Cold Millions” is a big (figuratively speaking) beautiful work of historical fiction. The story revolves around the very real 1909 organizing and fundraising campaign of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in Spokane, Washington and the also very real activities of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.
The story begins with the shooting death of a policeman, Alfred Waterbury, while investigating a burglary in one of the wealthy neighborhoods of Spokane. This shooting causes the somewhat (okay, more than somewhat) corrupt Spokane police department to go on a rampage against the city’s large vagrant (tramp) population. Enter brothers Ryan (Rye) and Gregory (Gig) Dolan. Rye is 16 years old and recently orphaned and Gig is 23 years old and has been living a transient life for many years when Rye tracks him down in Spokane and tells him that both parents have died. The two live in the back porch of a boarding house owned by an Italian immigrant, Mrs. Ricci, who frequently confuses them for her sons. Mrs. Ricci has a soft spot for them and offers to sell them the orchard behind her house for $250. Since both work only sporadically, that is a big mountain to climb.
Gig is madly in love with “Ursula the Great”, a beautiful performer who is best known for stepping into a cage with a cougar and walking out alive. She has had a long running performance at Spokane’s Comique Theater owned by the wealthy and dangerous Lem Brand. Although Ursula reciprocates Gig’s feelings, she is romantically connected to Brand.
One evening Gig and Rye have slept in an open ball field along with about two dozen “tramps, hobos, stiffs.” Suddenly a gang of men, “off-clock cops and mining agents, security guards and private citizens”, show up with all kinds of weapons aimed at the tramps’ heads. Rye, Gig and two other men (Jules and Early Reston) take off together and find themselves backed into a corner by three of these men. Suddenly, Early Reston steps up, grabs the club from a man’s hand and beats one of the pursuers near to death. The attackers flee.
Gig and Rye knew Jules but they did not know Early. Jules is native American and comes from tough beginnings. His story is told throughout the book. Early “was thin and pale, in a worn coat and a hat that retained little of its original form. His mustache was graying, but otherwise the man’s age was a complete mystery…” Early and Gig begin a discussion and it turns out that they have a mutual love of reading and philosophy. Gig has been reading “War and Peace” but has only been able to obtain volumes one and three of a five volume translation. “War and Peace” and Early Reston play a meaningful role throughout the story.
Gig, who drinks more than he ought, is active with the IWW, whose members are known as wobblies. The IWW is protesting the job agencies that charge workers a $1 per job referral fee knowing that the work they provide will be temporary at best. The IWW is planning a “Free Speech Day” and the town and particularly law enforcement are on edge.
Free Speech Day arrives and Gig tells Rye he cannot attend. Rye goes into town anyway and watches as wobblies step up on platforms to speak in support of the union and are brought down by the police and arrested. When Rye sees Gig beaten Rye steps onto a platform and he too is taken down and arrested. In jail, Jules, Rye and Gig are confronted by the corrupt police officer Hub Clegg. Jules is beaten nearly to death and ultimately taken to his niece Gemma’s home to either die or recuperate.
Rye is assigned a lawyer, Fred Moore, and he cannot quite believe it. “Ryan J. Dolan of Nothing, Nowhere, having neither house nor bed, nothing a person might call a possession, somehow had a lawyer.” Rye is released from jail, in part because he is a minor. He struggles, however, with Mr. Moore’s characterization of him in court as a pitiful orphan. “As his lawyer spoke, Rye felt an odd mix of emotions—pride that someone so eloquent was working on his behalf, but embarrassment too, a painful self-awareness that he was the hobo waif Mr. Moore was describing…”
After being released from jail, Rye returns to Mrs. Ricci’s house and suddenly Ursula shows. Ursula and a driver take Rye, in a fancy car, to meet with Lem Brand. When Rye arrives at the Brand mansion he cannot get over the opulence of the house and the man’s existence. Brand meets with Rye in his grand library and offers him a glass of brandy. Rye is overwhelmed. “It was too much. All of it, too much, and Rye cried at the too-muchness of it…The unfairness hit Rye not like sweet brandy but like a side ache…But now he knew…that men lived like this.” Thinking about all the poor who die just trying to scrape by, Rye wonders “…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.” Brand wants him to spy on the goings on at the IWW, in exchange for $20 a month.
Elizabeth Gurly Flynn, an outspoken union organizer shows up in Spokane and all hell breaks loose. Rye ends up traveling with her to Idaho and Montana and at some point they pick up Early Reston along the way. Then enter Del Dalveaux, the dangerous detective hired by Lem Brand to take care of a number of the people in the story.
And if you want to know what happens from here, you need to read the book. Everything comes together at the end and yet it does not feel at all contrived.
I just loved this novel. It is wonderfully written, has a touch of history, has twists and turns and surprises and is just a joy to read. The novel also addresses those tough issues of wealth inequality, corruption, power and women’s rights. The story has surprising moments of kindness in spots where you might not expect. Be sure to read the acknowledgements at the end of the book. This is definitely a book that should be on your must read list and it can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.