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Whatcom READS: ‘The Cold Millions’ by Jess Walter

Historical saga includes riots, rabble-rousers and romance

Jess Walter's book “The Cold Millions” is this year's Whatcom READS selection. Programs related to the book about riots
Jess Walter's book “The Cold Millions” is this year's Whatcom READS selection. Programs related to the book about riots (Photo courtesy of Rajah Bose)
By Amy Kepferle Staff Reporter

In the preface to Jess Walter’s book “The Cold Millions,” a likable police officer named Alfred Waterbury is shot to death during a late-night patrol of a high-end neighborhood in Spokane. The year is 1909, and the city is on the cusp of a violent chapter of its history relating to free speech and the efforts of members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) to fight for labor rights in a system seemingly skewed against them.

Alfred’s murder — which won’t be solved until near the end of the 355-page book — becomes the catalyst for Police Chief John T. Sullivan to crack down on crime, including violently breaking up temporary camps housing what the book’s author calls “bums, tramps, hobos, stiffs” and jailing IWW members who dare to speak up in a public forum against corrupt employment agencies and unfair labor practices.

photo  The book is more than a historical saga. The tale includes both brotherly and romantic love, strong women, Native Americans who’ve lost their culture and language, hit men, hope, despair, and dialogue that propels the story forward while simultaneously drawing readers back in time. (Image courtesy of Harper Collins)  

The backstory relating to this year’s Whatcom READS selection is important because the riots and the movement they induced not only introduces readers to real-life events and people who shaped our region’s future, but also acts as the narrative spine as orphaned and itinerant brothers Gig (Gregory) and Rye (Ryan) Dolan navigate the turbulent world around them.

It’s a historical saga, sure, but it’s much more. The tale includes both brotherly and romantic love, strong women, Native Americans who’ve lost their culture and language, hit men, hope, despair, and dialogue that propels the story forward while simultaneously drawing readers back in time.

It’s obvious why “The Cold Millions” was chosen as this year’s Whatcom READS selection. The tomes selected for the countywide book club over the past 15 years have all had local ties addressing cultural or local interests, or were written by an author who is from or has ties to our region. The Spokane-based Walter, and his bestselling 2020 novel, fit the bill.

The selected book must also have an appeal to a wide range of readers, and “The Cold Millions” has the ability to draw everyone from history nuts to fans of mystery, romance and fiction served with doses of truth.

The broad range of topics it covers will also serve to facilitate a number of virtual and in-person events beginning Jan. 12 with “She Traveled Solo: Strong Women in the Early 20th Century,” and culminating with book discussions and presentations featuring Jess Walter in early March at venues throughout Whatcom County. In between, there will be programs relating to the IWW of yesteryear and the present day, vintage vaudevillians, Spokane history, songs of protest and more. Additionally, there will be related art and writing challenges. 

When we first meet Gig and Rye, they’ve spent the evening drinking with other union men, and although they have quarters on a widow’s enclosed porch, have camped with a bunch of other itinerants on a ball field soon to be overrun by the police chief and his goons. Gig is 23 years old, with a big personality, book smarts and a lust for life (and women). Nearly 17, Rye is the more cautious of the two, especially when it comes to the Wobblies.

Walter writes: “Here was Rye’s chief complaint about Gig’s involvement with the Industrial Workers of the World, the one big union that took anyone as a member: Finnish logger, Negro seamstress, Indian ranch hand, even floater like them. What good was a union meant to help them find work if Gig spent so much time there that he couldn’t work?”


It’s a good point, but when Gig is beaten by police officers while advocating for free speech by singing a modified version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and Rye takes his place on the sidewalk soapbox — where he is also beaten and sent to jail — Rye understands the toll it can take to advocate not only for other people, but also for oneself.

This is a common thread throughout “The Cold Millions.” Gig’s love interest, vaudeville star Ursula the Great, uses her talent and her wiles to secure a financial future for herself, but has to make allowances when it comes to the wealthy men she beds. The character based on labor leader, activist and feminist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn must also rally against preconceived notions of femininity to address the bigger ills of society.

When Rye is let out of the slammer early after it’s discovered he’s only 16, he sees the inequity of the classes after being accompanied by Ursula to businessman Lem Brand’s palatial estate, where he is served a tray of French cookies and brandy in front of a roaring fire. He weeps, wishing his brother could spend an afternoon in the book-lined room instead of still being in a stone jail.

“But now he knew, and he would know the next time he was curled up in a cold boxcar, that men lived like this, that there was such a difference between Lem Brand and him that Brand should live here and Rye nowhere,” Walter writes.

“He flushed with sadness, as if every moment of his life were occurring all at once — his sister dying in childbirth, his mother squirming in that one-room flop, poor Danny sliding between wet logs, Gig in jail, and Jules dead — and how many more? 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.”

Find out more about how to obtain a copy of “The Cold Millions” as well as when and where Whatcom READS programs are happening at whatcomreads.org.

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