Wiley Cash’s new novel Last Ballad is his best

I like to think of that moment a writer is struck with the idea of turning a real-life event into a fictional work. Intimidation? Exhilaration? One emotion after the other? Everything at once?

Any writer would be comforted knowing there’s a framework of facts on which to build. Yet think of the thousand decisions still ahead. Invent characters? Stick with the facts? Embroider?

A new novel I suspect will serve as a model for any writer who wants to transform fact into fiction is Wiley Cash’s third and finest, “The Last Ballad,” based on the life of folk hero and balladeer Ella May Wiggins, a young mother murdered during Gastonia’s 1929 Loray Mill Strike.

What Cash has accomplished in terms of interest, vitality and even timeliness, speaks to his well-honed craft, especially his skill in creating a cohesive fabric of multiple points of view.

Cash, 40, grew up in Gastonia, and his parents and grandparents worked in mills in North and South Carolina for years. Yet, Cash had never heard of Ella May Wiggins or the Loray strike until he was in graduate school in Louisiana in the early 1990s.

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