"The Cold Millions," | Reviewed by William Winkler
The year is 1909, the location Spokane, Washington. The Industrial Workers of the World, the “Wobblies,” are hard at work in their attempt to organize the mass of ragtag itinerants flooding the streets of the city, looking for work as the mines of Montana and Idaho close, one by one.
Hard at work as well are the officers of the largely corrupt Spokane police force, led by John Sullivan, a great brute of a man well in the pockets of Spokane’s wealthy and powerful.
Sullivan’s officers see it as their duty to rid the city’s street of the “anarchist” labor activists. They carry out their responsibility with gleeful brutality, beating and imprisoning any who do not fit their definition of propriety.
Onto this stage step Gregory and Ryan Dolan, Gig and Rye, orphaned brothers of Irish descent, the protagonists of Spokane native Jess Walter’s latest novel “The Cold Millions.”
Gig, the older, fancies himself an intellectual while Rye, seven years his junior, is the quieter and more practical of the two. Gig rapidly gets involved in the activities of the Wobblies. Rye watches from afar until he is inadvertently swept up in a massive police raid on the Wobblies’ Day of Free Speech. He is freed from captivity by the intervention of a young lawyer working on behalf of an even younger female radical from Boston, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.
The story unfolds in semi-linear fashion, narratives about the adventures of the Dolans and Gurley Flynn interwoven with first-person accounts from peripheral characters. An epilogue, set more than a half-century later, offers historical perspective from the eyes of one of the surviving characters.
Walter’s novel is based on real events from early 20th century Spokane. Some of the characters (Chief Sullivan, Gurley Flynn and others) are drawn from the history of the day while others (the Dolans) are fictional. Many of the words of the historical characters are direct quotations from newspapers of the time. Walter’s writing blurs the distinction between his characters’ backgrounds; all are credible and engaging.
Walter’s previous novel, “The Beautiful Ruins,” was published in 2012. He spent a large portion of the years between books in the stacks of the Spokane Public Library researching the events described in this book. The result is a highly readable and believable tale of a turbulent moment in American history.