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Spokane's 1910 free speech battles

Book review: ‘The Cold Millions’

Jess Walter is in Whatcom County March 2-4 for five events for 2023’s “Whatcom Reads,” including a tips and suggestions session on writing. His 7 p.m. March 3 reading at the Mount Baker Theatre is free, but tickets are required. Information:

How cold has your family been? Hopefully, they are not suffering in a difficult economic or political climate this year, or even in your lifetime, but reflect on the generations your family has been in America, or perhaps throughout its history: For how long has comfort been the norm?

In 1909 in the Skagit Valley, in Seattle, in Spokane, would your ancestors have hopped freights and hitched rides in the back of wagons as day laborers, with all the possessions they owned rolled up in their blankets slung over their backs?

A lot of them did, as did countless unknown others. Award-winning author Jess Walter, Spokane-born and with a grandfather who rode freights and whose father belonged to a union and believed in fairness, re-creates Spokane’s 1909 and 1910 free speech riots in “The Cold Millions,” published in 2020. Immigrants and robber barons, socialists, unionists and Wobblies battled with the police, private detectives and hired assassins, the former for fair hiring and decent wages, the latter to maintain a rigged status quo.

Teenage brothers Rye and Gig Dolan are at the center of this historically-based novel. Gig, the bright, charismatic and handsome older brother, is soon in jail, pulled off a soap box while advocating for free speech. Rye becomes the center of the story, though all he wants is a job that will earn him savings to buy a house with a garden out back for the two of them.

It is through Rye’s eyes, mind and heart that the story unfolds. We read it in the third person, but a rich cast of characters weave in and out of the story in first-person chapters, providing glimpses of their lives, as far back as when the Spokane Indian Jules was a boy in 1864 and forward to the novel’s last days, in 1911, when Spokane Police Commissioner John Sullivan is assassinated in his home, a bullet from a rifle fatally wounding him.

The history is accurate, with the events unfolding in 1910 and 1911, when intermittent day workers were terribly cheated by hiring houses run by lumber, mill and mine owners. Some workers were members of the one big Union, the International Workers of the World.

Elizabeth Flynn Gurley, a 19 year-old union organizer of national renown, came from out east and was arrested for speaking.

But Walter’s fictional characters are as complexly drawn. Ursula the Great, also golden throated, a cougar tamer on the vaudeville stage, nightly entered the beast’s cage and tamed him before a full house of cheering men.

And the bad guys are each bad in their unique way: The mine owner Lem Brand is so rich and not trusting those he hires, he independently has two private detectives infiltrate the union.

“Detective” was a euphemism for assassin. Their targets were organizers. Walter recounts a history we refuse to learn, both of our past and of present moments: The powers-that-be kill in the name of the law, blame the victims and are exonerated.

The novel’s title comes from Rye being brought to the palatial estate of the robber baron Brand. Rye is hit with the pain of the unfairness of life, recalls his family, parents and siblings dead, dying much too young, only his brother alive, and he in jail.

He reflects: “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.”

But Rye, thrown into the center of the fight, has rich adventures, taking a ticketed train ride to Seattle to deliver Flynn’s manuscript to a union newspaper, which breaks the story of the Spokane jailings to the outside world. Both assassins develop relationships with him, but he survives while they die as they lived, violently.

This good tale of class warfare is of a simpler time, when divisions were economic-based.

Reprinted from Jan. 13, 2021.


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