Blogs > Robin Lindley > Inequality, Labor Unrest, and Police Brutality in Early 20th Century Spokane, Washington: Jess Walter on His New Historical Novel "The Cold Millions"

Mar 26, 2021

Inequality, Labor Unrest, and Police Brutality in Early 20th Century Spokane, Washington: Jess Walter on His New Historical Novel "The Cold Millions"

tags: novels,historical fiction,fiction,labor history,Protest,Pacific Northwest

Spokane, Washington. 1909. The City Council bans downtown speeches to curb labor agitation. The Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW—the “Wobblies”) organizes a mass protest against this restriction of free speech. Local police under notorious Spokane Police Chief John Sullivan brutally break up the nonviolent labor protest. Hundreds of union supporters are arrested and jailed. Many are injured. IWW firebrand “Rebel Girl” Elizabeth Gurley Flynn arrives on the scene to secure release of the jailed workers and to organize for the IWW. She is just 19 years old and pregnant, yet she courageously organizes working people in her travels around the Northwest. She later becomes a leading suffragist and one of the co-founders of the American Civil Liberties Union. In union circles, she is exalted still for her leadership, humanity, and bravery.

Celebrated Spokane novelist Jess Walter brings to life this fraught history in his new historical novel, The Cold Millions, a titular reference to the many poor and forgotten souls of early 20th century America. With a cast of real and fictional characters, he takes on issues from more than a century ago that resonate today including intolerance, income inequality, police brutality, violence, and human rights. At the same time, the novel plumbs emotional depths as it explores the complexities of friendship, sacrifice, betrayal, lust, cruelty, and love.

The story unfolds through the perspective of two orphaned and jobless young men, the Irish American Dolan brothers from Montana, who seek new lives in the metropolis of Spokane. Police jail the idealistic brother Gig, 23 years old, who embraces the promises of the IWW, while younger brother Rye, 16, yearns only for modicum of stability and a home. Yet it’s Rye who accompanies the fiery Gurley Flynn on her fiery campaign for workers as he also becomes enmeshed in the dark schemes of a wealthy Spokane mining magnate. Other characters include a burlesque actress and her performing cougar, a hired assassin, anti-union scabs, hoboes, labor organizers, a crusading attorney, and more.

Mr. Walter’s extensive historical research is on full display in The Cold Millions. In the creation of his novel, he pored over period newspapers, maps, diaries, letters, postcards, and more. The novel captures the mood and rhythm of the time, the arcane language, the passion of average people for fairness and justice, as well as the moments of debauchery and humor. Walter’s writing conveys his affection for his hometown of Spokane with full awareness of its fraught history, a reflection of the larger checkered history of the United States.

Mr. Walter is best known for his literary novels including Beautiful Ruins and The Financial Lives of the Poets, the National Book Award Finalist The Zero, and Citizen Vince, the winner of the Edgar Award for best novel. He also wrote a critically-acclaimed book of short stories, We Live in Water, and his short fiction has appeared in Harper'sMcSweeney's, and Playboy, as well as The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. He began his writing career as a reporter for the Spokesman Review and wrote a nonfiction volume, Ruby Ridge (Originally entitled Every Knee Shall Bend). He lives with his wife Anne and children, Brooklyn, Ava and Alec, in Spokane.

Mr. Walter generously responded by email to a series of questions on his writing career and his new novel.

Robin Lindley: Thank you for connecting with me Mr. Walter, and congratulations on your powerful new historical novel, The Cold Millions. Before getting to your new book, I’m also interested in your writing career. You have a background in journalism and a career as a prominent literary writer. Did you want to be a writer when you were young? What drew you to a writing career?

Jess Walter: I wanted to be a writer as long as I can remember. I created a family magazine with my siblings when I was six or seven (called Reader’s Indigestion) and was the editor of my junior high and high school newspapers. I read voraciously and used to visit the library as a 13-year-old, imagining where my future novels would go.

In college, I was a young father, and so I had to switch from majoring in English and creative writing to journalism, so that I could support my young family. But that seven-year detour into newspapers made me a better writer, I think, and certainly a better citizen.

Robin Lindley: How does your experience in journalism inform your writing now?

Jess Walter: Journalism informs my writing in many ways, I think: certainly the ability to research, and to publish without fear or a kind of preciousness. You don’t come back from a newspaper assignment saying that the “muse didn’t strike.” Likewise, you learn a directness and an economy of style that translates well to fiction. As an early newspaper editor once told me, “You write beautiful descriptions. Now pick one.” But the biggest attribute that I gained from journalism, I would say, is a keen sense of curiosity, and the tools to satisfy it. I think I’m a more outward-looking novelist, with an understanding of systems and institutions, because I worked for newspapers.

Robin Lindley: What sparked your career as a novelist? Are there certain writers that have influenced your work?

Jess Walter: Hmm, I think of a spark as something external, but a novelist is his or her own spark. You just read and write. Every day. I’ve written pretty much every day since I was a teenager. I wrote fiction for fifteen years before I had much success at it. I wrote a nonfiction book, two unpublished novels, dozens of short stories and was a ghostwriter before I published my first novel.

My fiction didn’t support me until my seventh book, and still, I am incredibly lucky that it supports me at all. As for influences, there are so many it’s hard to know where to start. From the top, I’d go with: Joan Didion, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Don DeLillo and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. 

Robin Lindley: Some of my favorites too. You’re praised for novels that are always different. As America’s Librarian Nancy Pearl has said, “Jess never writes the same book.” How do you see the arc of your writing career?

Jess Walter: Ha! Well, first let me just say that Nancy is a dream reader and a wonderful writer. But isn’t it strange that the anomaly is the person who “never writes the same book”? Shouldn’t that be the case for more writers? I would rather ask, “Why do so many writers keep digging the same hole?” As for me, when I finish a book, I’m ready to do something different. I strive to get better as a novelist, and I think I get better by trying new things. But once I get going on a project, honestly, I don’t think about any of that. I just let the story dictate its genre, style and tone. If I concentrate simply on writing the next book I want to read, the rest takes care of itself.

Robin Lindley: It seems that most of your books involve moments in history. How does history play a role in your work? Did you enjoy history as a student?

Jess Walter: I did, and I do. But other than The Cold Millions, I wouldn’t say that my writing is particularly tied to historical moments. In fact, I would say, like the journalist I was, I’m more drawn to the contemporary.

I was at Ground Zero in the days after the terror attacks of 9/11 and wrote a dark satirical novel about our reaction to those attacks (The Zero), and I wrote a farcical family drama about the financial crisis of 2008 (The Financial Lives of the Poets.) Even this historical novel rose out of my desire to address contemporary issues like income inequality and political and social unrest. With Citizen Vince, I chose to write about the 1980 presidential election in part because of its significance in swinging American politics so firmly to the right over the next forty years. So I guess I would say my interest in history is really about how it impacts the present moment.

Robin Lindley: Thanks for those insights. Now, to go to your new, highly praised novel, The Cold Millions, what inspired this particular book? 

Jess Walter: It’s difficult to distill so many years of thought and research and writing into a few impulses of inspiration, but I’ll try.

Early on, I felt the political and social echoes of the last Gilded Age in our current economic climate, and I hoped to write about issues like inequality and nonviolent protest without being didactic. I also wanted to write a kind of labor Western, to collide those genres, the social novel and the adventure story, around the real free speech protests of 1909-10, and to recreate the thriving, boisterous Spokane that I found in old newspapers and postcards.

I was also taken by the figure of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and hoped to renew interest in her amazing life, while at the same time echoing the youthful activists that I saw leading the current political fights for sensible gun and climate legislation, and against police brutality against African Americans.

There were many novelists who inspired me, too, from Tolstoy to Steinbeck to E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime to William Kennedy’s Ironweed.

And finally, a big part of the novel was personal for me. I’m a first-generation college graduate from a working-class family. Both grandfathers were itinerant workers in the 1930s, and my dad worked for 40 years for Kaiser Aluminum, rising to president of his Steelworkers Union local. My dad has Alzheimer’s now, and is at the end of his life, and I wanted to honor his steadfast belief in unions.

Growing up, the fairness and egalitarianism of labor was as close as my family had to a religion. I saw this early period of labor as a kind of origin story, filled with idealism and courage, before the unions became tainted by corruption and Communism became connected to the brutal regimes of the twentieth century.

Robin Lindley: The novel is filled with history and you have a gift for evoking this age. What was your research process for the book? Did you find especially useful archives and other resources?

Jess Walter: I read dozens of books from and about that period, correspondence and academic papers, pored over maps and railroad schedules, but most of my research, honestly, was done bent over microfilm, reading old newspapers.

The Spokane Library was very helpful, especially its Northwest Room, and I took several trips to the Seattle Library and to the library at Washington State University. Research is incredibly helpful until it isn’t. At some point, the novelist just has to just create, and to imagine. You become fluent in a period and then you can allow the characters you’ve conjured to drive the action.

Robin Lindley: What are a few things you’d like readers to know about Spokane in 1909?

Jess Walter: If you can imagine the railroad in 1900 as the equivalent of the internet today—connecting the world in ways it hadn’t before—you can see how Spokane was one of the fastest-growing and most thriving cities in the United States at that time. Every northern railroad line pinched together in Spokane, before spreading out to Portland, Seattle, Vancouver. The incredible wealth from the area’s mining, timber and agricultural flowed through the city. Like Seattle, it was doubling in size every six or seven years, but unlike Seattle, it was known for being an island of sophistication in an empty part of the world, with great hotels and restaurants and one of the best theater scenes in the West, including the largest stage in the world. 

Robin Lindley: I’m a native of Spokane but never knew of the 1909 Free Speech Movement and the labor strife then. It’s fascinating and now more people will know about this past thanks to your novel. How did you come upon this overlooked campaign for workers?

Jess Walter: I can’t remember how I first came across the free speech action in Spokane, but I think it was in the morgue of my old newspaper. Perhaps I was grabbing files on Tom Foley (I covered his last election in 1994) when I pulled the file on Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and noted her story and set it aside as a topic for a later novel. The sheer audacity of Gurley Flynn and the ahead-of-its time inclusivity of the IWW seemed remarkable to me.

A few years later, I read that Dashiell Hammett had worked as a Pinkerton detective out of Spokane, investigating labor figures in Montana (the roots of his novel Red Harvest), and I began looking for ways to bring that period to life. For years, I gathered articles and books and mulled over how to tell the story.

Robin Lindley: When I was younger, the Industrial Workers of the World, the Wobblies, were seen as bomb-throwing radicals, but you found a different story. What did you learn?

Jess Walter: Well, at times, there were bomb-throwing radicals and anarchists in the IWW, but usually the violence came in reaction to the IWW. The union was radical, definitely, pushing for a complete overhaul of capitalism, but it also preached nonviolence. Some members pushed for more direct action, like sabotage and general strikes, but it was actually the IWW’s pacifism that caused it to run afoul of the U.S. government, when the union objected to our entry into World War I.

There was awful violence involving the Wobblies, in Everett, in Centralia, in Butte, Montana, but almost always that violence came from the other side, from vigilantes or detectives who had infiltrated the IWW. In fact, the free speech actions in the Northwest were the first successful nonviolent protests in U.S. history, a model for civil rights activists decades later. 

Robin Lindley: The Free Speech Movement occurred in 1909, a decade before the better-known Seattle General Strike. What did workers gain from the Spokane Movement?

Jess Walter: They were very much connected. By 1919, the IWW’s profile in the United States had been greatly diminished, and they were seen as the most radical labor organization in the United States. The Seattle strike was groundbreaking because of its breadth, because more traditional unions took part in it: dockworkers and unions affiliated with the AFL. But city officials fighting the strike used the Wobblies as socialist bogeymen to try to turn public perception against this huge, broad social movement. 

Robin Lindley: A central character of The Cold Millions is Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a young labor activist—a real person—who spoke on behalf of workers and the poor. What are a few things you’d like readers to know about her?

Jess Walter: I write about Gurley Flynn at a fascinating time in her life. (She would go on to become a founding member of the ACLU, the chairwoman of the Communist Party USA, be jailed for her activism, and become a civil rights activist, among other things.) But in 1909, she was a fiery 19-year-old labor activist and suffragist who had been speaking in factories and rough work camps for three years, known as the East Side Joan of Arc and, by the establishment New York Times, as a “she-dog of anarchy.” I marveled at a pregnant 19-year-year-old, ten years before she can even vote, traveling west by herself to fight for workers’ rights against corrupt police and company goons.

Robin Lindley: You humanize real characters in your book such as the “Rebel Girl” Gurley Flynn and the brutal Spokane Police Chief John Sullivan. How do you create the fictional presence and world of a real character?

Jess Walter: There is a fine balance, I think. To make them come alive like the other characters, you have to treat them as fictional creations, inventing dialogue, motivations and actions. But I feel a responsibility to the historical figures, as well, and so, with all of those characters, I tried to research them, and to keep the invention to a real minimum. For instance, most of the speeches that Gurley Flynn gives in the novel come from accounts of her actual speeches, in newspaper stories and books. 

Robin Lindley: You tell much of the story through the eyes of a couple of young Irish-American vagabonds from Montana who are drawn to Spokane. Were they based on real people? How did you choose this point of view?

Jess Walter: Gig and Rye are entirely fictional characters. But their story parallels many of the hobos working at that time. And their sense of adventure comes from stories my grandfather used to tell about his own hoboing days a generation later in the 1930s.

Robin Lindley: And you etch the age through a range of characters including a Pinkerton detective who sees Spokane as “a box of misery” and “a syphilitic town” that metastasized, a hired killer, an actress who performs with her cougar, a righteous lawyer, wealthy tycoons, and more. Were there historical models for these characters?

Jess Walter: Other than Fred Moore, who was an actual labor lawyer who moved from Spokane to other free speech protests around the West, they are all fictional characters burnished by my research into the time. 

Robin Lindley: The brutality of the Spokane police, jailers, and anti-union thugs may stun some readers. What was the city like in 1909 for the poor, the dispossessed, the nonwhite?

Jess Walter: About like it was everywhere. Maybe the one difference was that the city was teeming with itinerant workers because of its location as a hiring center for mining, timber and agriculture jobs. Many of these were recent immigrants from Central Europe, and they suffered through waves of abhorrent racism and xenophobia, as immigrants as varied as the Chinese and the Irish had previously, and as Native Americans and African Americans continuously faced. The Spokane Police, during this period, were accused of everything from brutalizing traveling workers to shaking down the city’s brothels, again, not unlike police in other cities.

Robin Lindley: You also capture the arcane language and idioms of the period. How did you come to learn these expressions and obscure words?

Jess Walter: It was great fun, immersing myself in the language of the newspapers, the IWW speakers and singers, the Pinkerton detectives and others. Much of it came from newspapers and Wobbly accounts of the free speech protests in Spokane. In capturing the way a 60-something-year-old Pinkerton detective might sound, I read old mysteries to find words that had disappeared from the lexicon, like “the morbs” (a morbid feeling of unease) and “lobcocked” (bothered or blocked from action) … that language, in particular, began to feel like some missing link between Western and Hardboiled literature.

Robin Lindley: You present an unsparing account of Spokane history, including an account of atrocities against Native people. What did you learn about treatment of Native people?

Jess Walter: This is another thing I feel like I’ve always known. I grew up on the river, near Plantes Ferry and the horse slaughter camp, where in 1858, eight hundred native ponies were ordered shot by Col. George Wright as punishment and warning to the Spokane tribe. In the 1970s, when I was a kid, people were still finding bleached horse bones along that shoreline.

I live now just across from what used to be Ft. Wright, near the confluence of the Spokane River and a stream that for 120 years was called Hangman Creek, named for the spot where Wright had tribal leaders hanged when they came to beg for peace.

My family lived for a few years on ranch bordering the Spokane Indian Reservation, where the tribe was forcibly relocated. Anyone who doesn’t understand the brutal history of treatment of Native Americans in the place they live is just not paying attention. And not just Spokane. Seattle, Yakima, Manhattan, how many of us live in cities named for the people from whom it was brutally taken.

Robin Lindley: Your book is a tribute to human rights, the rights of assembly and free speech, and the struggle to preserve those rights, along with a recognition that all people regardless of social station or wealth or race, deserve access to justice and equal rights. Were you thinking of those values as you wrote The Cold Millions?

Jess Walter: Definitely. And I’d add one more, the old-fashioned idea of brotherhood, the kind that Gig and Rye share, and also the kind that they share with Jules and with Gurley Flynn and the leaders of the IWW.

Ten years before I was born, in 1955, about one in three Americans belonged to a union. Now that number is less than one in ten. And, not coincidentally, the middle class has eroded and the gap between wealthy and poor is as high as it was in 1909. The book is an elegy for labor idealism and perhaps a suggestion for the road back.

Robin Lindley: Are there other books and resources you’d recommend to help readers better understand the history behind The Cold Millions?

Jess Walter: Oh, so many. The book has an Acknowledgments section that is chock full of books that I used in my research. But I will suggest one that gives a broad sense of the labor wars of that period in the Northwest, Big Trouble by J. Anthony Lukas.

Robin Lindley: It’s clear from your work that you love Spokane despite its checkered history. You’re a native of the city and you still live there. I recall that the late, great Spokane artist Harold Balazs told me that friends asked him why he never moved from Spokane to an arts mecca like New York City or LA. He said, “You bloom where you’re planted.” It seems you share that strong sense of place.

Jess Walter: Ha, please point me to the American city that doesn’t have a checked history, and I will move there. Every city is born, as Spokane was, through some combination of brutality toward its Native people and the destruction of its natural resources.

I think some people in Seattle look with condescension at Spokane because it’s poor. But equating a poor city with a bad one is rank snobbery. In fact, I would argue that there’s something more fundamentally wrong with a city where a teacher or a police officer can never dream of affording a home. I happen to like Spokane’s grubbiness, its weirdness, its rough edges. Harold’s answer to that question is terrific, like everything about Harold, but I kind of wish he’d have just said, “Go pound sand.”

Robin Lindley: Outsiders may see Spokane as conservative bastion in a county that voted for Trump and is represented by a rightwing member of Congress, but the city also has growing arts, literary and higher education communities. Perhaps voting patterns don’t reflect the entire reality of the city. How do you see the social and political evolution of Spokane since 1909? Are younger people there now interested in social and political change?

Jess Walter: The city itself is quite liberal, went for Biden by almost 20 points, and has a city council with a 6-1 progressive bent. Because of the Spokane Valley and its more rural areas, Spokane County did tip for Trump, by about 4 points, half the margin of 2016.

But I think it’s misleading to think of Spokane as just another part of red Eastern Washington. The real divide is between urban and rural, like everywhere in the United States. And Spokane’s politics has always been far more complex than the West Side of the state wants to imagine. Even in Spokane’s more conservative periods, a Democrat, Tom Foley, represented the region and rose to Speaker of the House. And Spokane had a black mayor, Jim Chase, a decade before Seattle did.

As for young people, I think, like everywhere, they are more engaged than I’ve ever seen them, and personally, I can’t wait for them to take the wheel.

Robin Lindley: As we today face a politically divided country, a deadly pandemic, a political insurrection, and a history of systemic racism, among other issues, where do you find hope?

Jess Walter: Wow, that’s a hard question. I like what Kafka says: “There is infinite hope … but not for us.” Still, deep inside, I cling to an old-fashioned kind of humanism, and the belief in what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. But, as a novelist, you’d better keep track of the devils, too, because they make for better characters. 

Robin Lindley: You have a gift for breathing life into history Mr. Walter, and for blessing each of your characters with a sense of presence and humanity. Is there anything you’d like to add about your writing or your new epic novel and its resonance now?

Jess Walter: Thank you! No, those were wonderful questions. 

Robin Lindley: Thank you for your thoughtful words and generosity Mr. Walter. And congratulations on your epic historical novel The Cold Millions and the stellar praise you’re receiving. Well deserved, indeed.

Robin Lindley is a Seattle writer and attorney, and the features editor of the History News Network. His articles have appeared in many periodicals. He can be reached at

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