The hero of Jess Walter’s new novel is a young man, 16 going on 17. Swept up in a violent clash, Rye Dolan makes his stand on an overturned crate in the middle of a milling, pulsing crowd, raising his voice against a ban against free speech on the streets of his city. Cops throw him to the ground, arrest him and haul him away to a dark holding pen where men are packed so tightly they can barely breathe.
A South American country in revolution? A repressive European dictatorship? A contemporary American city? Not quite. Rye Dolan’s ordeal has begun in 1909 Spokane.
“The Cold Millions” (Harper, out Oct. 27) retrieves from the dustbin of history an incident known as the Spokane free-speech riots. It was a civil disobedience action launched by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in defiance of an order banning speechmaking on Spokane’s streets, and by the time it was done, 500 protesters were arrested and jailed, many brutally beaten. Walter calls it “the first successful use of nonviolent protest in America,” and it launched the career of labor activist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a charismatic 19-year-old firebrand who went on to become a labor agitator of national renown.
It’s a sweeping novel peopled with bad rich guys, flawed poor guys, displaced Native Americans, head-busting police, corrupt politicians and mysterious private detectives, and its title comes from the moment when Rye, surrounded by the outrageous opulence of a Spokane magnate’s home, realizes that he’s just one of the world’s hard-luck cases: “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.”
Like all Jess Walter novels, “The Cold Millions” will break your heart and make you hopeful at the same time. It’s yet another departure for the bestselling author of “Beautiful Ruins” and “The Zero,” a National Book Award finalist. The former newspaper journalist’s first book was “Ruby Ridge,” the nonfictional account about a family of white separatists and their fatal standoff with federal agents. Then he moved to detective novels, then social satire, and then 2012’s “Beautiful Ruins,” an epic romance that spanned two continents, several decades and the making of the 1963 movie “Cleopatra.”
“The Cold Millions” was a labor of love for Walter, who makes his home in Spokane. He’ll speak with fellow Spokane native Timothy Egan about his new book on Oct. 25 at a virtual event sponsored by the Elliott Bay Book Company.
Walter answered some questions from The Seattle Times about his inspiration for “The Cold Millions” ahead of the event.
(Answers have been edited for length and clarity.)
Seattle Times: You portray the Spokane of 1909 as a town of extreme wealth and dire poverty during a time when “a few lived like kings, and the rest hugged the dirt until it cracked open and took them home.” How did the rich of Spokane make their money?
Jess Walter: Railroads were the internet of the era, and there were seven main lines that converged in Spokane. Spokane was the hub. To the south and west was huge agriculture in the Palouse; to the east, mining and timber. That combination created the wealth of the mining and timber magnates who built the biggest houses in town, and those of all the industry that supported them, lawyers and doctors.
ST: Where did the poor come from?
JW: Much like today, the poor people were immigrants — from Eastern Europe, from Italy, from Ireland. There was a Chinese district in Spokane. There were members of the displaced [Native American] tribes. Today, their flophouses have been renovated into yoga studios and brewpubs.
ST: Your protagonists are a couple of orphaned brothers, Gig and Rye. When the book opens Rye is only 16; relatively young to be the hero in an adult novel. Why did you make him that age?
JW: As I was researching the novel, I came across the character Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the labor activist. She was traveling by herself at age 19. I thought of the teenaged activists after the shooting at Parkland, [and of] students walking out over climate change. I wanted my characters to look at things with fresh eyes. I wanted that youthful belief that of course we should share, of course not everyone should be wealthy.
ST: Tell our readers a bit about the free-speech riots, an amazing chapter in local history that I had not heard about.
JW: Because Spokane was a rail hub, there were thousands of itinerant workers who came here. The IWW was only 4 years old at that time. If you signed up for the IWW, you got a red card, and there were a thousand people in Spokane who got a red card.
By the time of the novel they had been in Spokane for about a year. The city passed these laws that they couldn’t speak in the streets. Over three weeks, there were 500 people arrested. They threw them into the jail, the brig at the fort, in an old school. They put a rock pile by the courthouse and forced prisoners to crush rocks. In the beginning, when protesters flooded to Spokane, they turned fire hoses on them. But Elizabeth Gurley Flynn really pushed for nonviolence. It was the first successful use of nonviolent protest in America.
The moment when these indigent activists changed the course of the city’s history seemed inspiring to me. I buried myself in microfilm, found newspaper accounts, correspondence, academic papers. But you then have to fire the research department and write a novel. I wrote longer acknowledgments than usual because I know that people will want to know what’s factual.
ST: How does your own family’s experience inform the novel?
JW: I come from a very working-class family. My dad worked at Kaiser Aluminum and was a union president. My mom’s dad was an Okie, homeless with his mother and sister, who worked his way across California, Oregon and Washington. My dad was an itinerant agriculture worker. I am the first male in my direct line to graduate from high school. My grandfather used to tell me about chasing trains — as a kid I loved those stories.
ST: Tell us more about Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a real person who The New York Times once called a “she-dog of anarchy,” who managed to shift public sentiment toward the IWW in the fight.
JW: She was a figure so ahead of her time. The IWW began in 1905 in Chicago with a conference, and she raised money to go to that by herself.
She was quite romantic about the West. I was wildly compelled by the fact that she arrived in Spokane a married woman, pregnant, someone who would leave her husband to travel there. I found her so compelling, her personal desire for freedom and to make her own way.
The union leaders didn’t want her speaking in the street and insisted that someone always accompany her. They didn’t want her to lead the fight as she had in Missoula, [Montana], but she was such an engaging speaker. She was arrested when they raided the IWW hall and shut it down. That was a turning point. A lot of the other IWW workers had heavy Irish or Italian accents — here was this apple-faced “American” girl who said things that it was hard to disagree with.
ST: Critics have called you a “shape-shifter” because of your ability to write such different kinds of books. This is your first work of historical fiction — what’s different about writing about the past?
JW: I don’t think much about genre. I find it strange that more writers don’t venture out of their comfort zones. I just go to the next thing I’m interested in. I think I’ve always been drawn to how history informs us. The big difficulty was to know when to venture away from the real story — how to do justice and honor it, how to create characters that can live alongside the historical figures.
“The Cold Millions” by Jess Walter, Harper, 352 pp., $28.99.
Walter will read from his new novel and discuss it with author Timothy Egan during a virtual event hosted by Elliott Bay Book Company this Sunday, Oct. 25, at 4 p.m. Tickets are $35 and include a physical copy of “The Cold Millions.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story listed Jess Walter’s Oct. 25 Elliott Bay event time as 6 p.m. The event has since been moved to 4 p.m.