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Wiley Cash finds his next novel in NC history

By Dannye Romine Powell
Dannye Romine Powell
Dannye Romine Powell has published three collections of poetry (University of Arkansas Press) and a non-fiction book, "Parting the Curtains: Interviews with Southern Writers" (John Blair).
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Credit: Kevin Millard -

I envy Wiley Cash.

Not for the acclaim he’s garnered for his best-selling debut novel in 2012, “A Land More Kind Than Home.” Not for his ability two years later to whip out a second novel, “This Dark Road to Mercy,” set in his native Gastonia. Not even for his wisdom in moving to Wilmington, only five minutes from Carolina Beach.

No. I envy Cash for the historical facts at his fingertips as he works at sculpting his third novel. In the unlikely event I ever attempt a work of fiction, I’d be so relieved to have news accounts to spin off, flesh and blood people to transform into characters, and a locale already imprinted on the memory.

If you saw Cash (no relation to Gastonia’s “Mind of the South” W.J. Cash – I asked) on D.G. Martin’s “Book Watch” a few weeks ago, you already know the hero of this novel is Ella May Wiggins, the young mother of five who led overworked, underpaid co-workers to strike at Gastonia’s Loray Mill in 1929. Her heroic efforts got the 29-year-old Wiggins a deadly bullet through the chest. The five Loray Mill employees charged in her murder were acquitted after less than 30 minutes of deliberation in a trial in Charlotte. Never mind that, according to “The History of the Labor Movement,” the crime was committed in daylight and more than 50 people witnessed it.

What a powerful, compelling tale to have in your fictional fist.

And, Cash, of course, has the novelist’s license to drive the story into the near-present. In his version, Ella May will have a daughter, Lilly, who at 96, recalls her escape from an orphanage after her mother’s death and her desperate trek into the Tennessee mountains to find her mother’s birth family. Cash adds, too, Lilly’s great-niece, who, at 47, is interviewing Lilly for the novel she’s writing about Lilly’s mother, Ella May.

Cash says that he’s been listening to the old mill songs, many of which Ella May herself wrote as she recorded (and sang in her alto voice), the events of the strike and the struggles of young mothers to support their children. One 1929 folklorist said that Ella May’s songs “were better than a hundred speeches.”

Not many people know much about Ella May Wiggins, according to Cash. “So it’s not difficult to fictionalize the things that need fictionalizing.”

How far along is he with the novel? A couple of weeks ago, he said he had “20,000 words that I’m not too embarrassed about.”

Powell: dpowell@charlotteobserver.com
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