“The Cold Millions” by Jess Walter

Genre: Historical FictionThe cold millions
Publisher: Harper/Collins
Pub. Date: Oct. 6, 2020

“Millions” is a richly entertaining historical novel that reconstructs the free speech riots that took place during the creation of the labor union during the early 1900s in Spokane, Washington. The novel is jam-packed with real-life people such as the passionate,19-year-old union organizer, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (known as the Rebel Girl), the young labor lawyer, Fred Moore, and many others. Historical fiction is my favorite genre because I must have been asleep in my school days. For me, there is nothing better than learning while being entertained. Did you know that back then, union activists were called Wobblys?  Dare I admit that I never heard of The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)?  Well, at least I did know who the union-busting Pinkertons were.

The story reads like a John Steinbeck novel with strong shades of “Grapes of Wrath” and a hint of “East of Eden.” We meet two colorful Irish American brothers at ages twenty-one and sixteen. Like many other Americans in those years, they were anxious to work, but there was no work to be found. (Think of the 1954 movie, “On The Waterfront.” A century later but the same situation, where a hundred men are hoping to be randomly picked for a job that needs only a handful of workers).  To eat, the brothers hop freight trains in search of employment.  Once the job is finished, they move on to wherever else they think they might find work, fair pay, and decent treatment. The boys are considered hobos and unwanted vagrants who sleep, with the other unemployed, shivering on the cold ground under the nighttime sky. The cops usually beat and chase them out of town.  The title of the book is referring to the millions who are poor and starving while the tycoons and the ungodly wealthy (in current days we refer to them as the 1% ) have no intention of sharing their wealth. There is a scene where the younger brother finds himself in the unusual position of being a guest in a millionaire’s house (spoiler: it is a set up). The boy cries seeing that such homes exist while he has no home at all.

Written in pristine prose, “Millions” features an unforgettable cast of Native Americans, recent immigrants, crooked cops—complete with a real-life shady police chief—tramps, suffragists, socialists, madams, and murderers. Not to mention, Ursula the Great, a fictional vaudeville singer who performs with a live cougar. The dashing older brother has an ongoing sexual relationship with Ursula the Great.  The shy younger brother has a crush on Elizabeth Gurley Flynn; told you that you would be entertained. At times, it can feel that the author has taken on too many isms, but it doesn’t detract from the story because all sorts of civil movements were going on in that period.  In reading this novel, you too will get lost in a fascinating tale and may learn a thing or two about the Rebel Girl and other rebel voices of this time in American History, which sounds eerily like the America we know today.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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7 thoughts on ““The Cold Millions” by Jess Walter

    1. I should warn you that the Native American family in the novel are not the main characters but they were important characters, Barbara Kingsolve’s early books might be right up your alley.


  1. Adding this to my list. I know about Pinkertons too – from the Sherlock Holmes novel The Valley of Fear, which is one of my favorites. In that one the Pinkerton agent was a good guy though.

    Liked by 1 person

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