People don’t get swept up by history, they make it. Walter’s latest is a grand and sweeping Western saga of the Wobblies 1909 free speech fight in Spokane. Over the course of a year, two vagrant brothers, a bawdy vaudeville performer, and firebrand labor activist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn take actions big and small that change the West and America forever. Walter gets deep under the skin of people living during a time of upheaval, in a world that’s ever-shifting, bending, and changing – though he reminds us: when isn’t it? With moral obligations and the arc of history on the line, what’s a young dreamer to do? Which side are you on? Hopefully, the right one.— Chris Lee
If I were to take Walter’s Beautiful Ruins and reflect it through the prism of The Sisters Brothers, I might come up with The Cold Millions, a period novel set during the rise of the IWW or The Wobblies. Gig and Rye are two brothers, the first a self-proclaimed hobo (mind you, not a bum or tramp) in early twentieth-century Spokane, and the second, his younger brother who seeks him out after their mom dies. The two become embroiled in a complicated scenario involving industrialists, organizers, prostitutes, sleuths, and bounty hunters, starting when Gig is arrested during a labor action and Rye unwittingly agrees to pass information. Keeping a plot as complicated and double-cross-filled as this one is no small feat, nor is creating what many would say is a modern take on Steinbeck. I love that this is the Spokane-iest book I’ve ever read. But once again, as in Beautiful Ruins, the thing that takes it home is the emotional heft, and with Rye, who slowly is revealed to be the center of this terrific novel, you’ve got that too.— Daniel Goldin
Jess Walter carries us back to the Pacific Northwest of the early 1900s, using vivid details to show us the raucous, vibrant, fast growing town of Spokane. The heart of the story is two Dolan brothers jumping trains to get work, fighting for workers’ rights with the hard-nosed bosses and cops who routinely use men and then dump them as bums. Workers want decency. They have fearless leaders, but the people with wealth and power aren’t giving anything away. They don’t play nice, and they have ways of controlling it all. The brothers believe in the cause, but they're also looking to settle down in this new whirlwind home. Their stories and the way they turn phrases had me smiling ear to ear, and then shaking my head in amazement at their resilience. I think I’ll remember their hard-earned wisdom forever. It’s a suspenseful novel, a window into early days of labor battles, delivered with a sharp, clever style. It’s entertaining, and also very timely considering the gap between rich and poor has never been greater than it is now. The plot twists and characters are fascinating, many based on real events and people. The ending is satisfying. I stayed tied to each page.— Tim McCarthy
November 2020 Indie Next List
“The gorgeous writing, vivid setting, compelling characters, and engrossing story aren’t even the best parts of this novel. Instead, I just keep marveling at how Jess Walter takes events from history to illuminate our present while keeping them rooted in their own time, from the labor movement to class, race, and gender equality and civil rights issues, to protests and freedom of speech. The northwest in 1909 has never been so relevant. Beautiful Ruins was a hard act to follow but, amazingly, Walter manages it with aplomb.”
— Ariana Paliobagis, The Country Bookshop, Southern Pines, NC
“One of the most captivating novels of the year.” – Washington Post
A Best Book of the Year: Bloomberg | Boston Globe | Chicago Public Library | Chicago Tribune | Esquire | Kirkus | New York Public Library | New York Times Book Review (Historical Fiction) | NPR's Fresh Air | O Magazine | Washington Post | Publishers Weekly | Seattle Times | USA Today
A Library Reads Pick | An Indie Next Pick
From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Beautiful Ruins comes another “literary miracle” (NPR)—a propulsive, richly entertaining novel about two brothers swept up in the turbulent class warfare of the early twentieth century.
An intimate story of brotherhood, love, sacrifice, and betrayal set against the panoramic backdrop of an early twentieth-century America that eerily echoes our own time, The Cold Millions offers a kaleidoscopic portrait of a nation grappling with the chasm between rich and poor, between harsh realities and simple dreams.
The Dolans live by their wits, jumping freight trains and lining up for day work at crooked job agencies. While sixteen-year-old Rye yearns for a steady job and a home, his older brother, Gig, dreams of a better world, fighting alongside other union men for fair pay and decent treatment. Enter Ursula the Great, a vaudeville singer who performs with a live cougar and introduces the brothers to a far more dangerous creature: a mining magnate determined to keep his wealth and his hold on Ursula.
Dubious of Gig’s idealism, Rye finds himself drawn to a fearless nineteen-year-old activist and feminist named Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. But a storm is coming, threatening to overwhelm them all, and Rye will be forced to decide where he stands. Is it enough to win the occasional battle, even if you cannot win the war?
Featuring an unforgettable cast of cops and tramps, suffragists and socialists, madams and murderers, The Cold Millions is a tour de force from a “writer who has planted himself firmly in the first rank of American authors” (Boston Globe).
About the Author
Jess Walter is the author of six novels, including the bestsellers 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. His short fiction has appeared in Harper's, McSweeney's, and Playboy, as well as The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. He lives in his hometown of Spokane, Washington.
“Vibrant…. Filled with a gusto that honors the beauty of believing in societal change and simultaneously recognizes the cruel limits of the possible…. The Cold Millions is reminiscent of the work of John dos Passos and EL. Doctorow…. [A] spirited and expansive novel.”
— Wall Street Journal
"Walter has made a major career out of the minor character, and his portrait of Rye ... is generously brought to life with humanity and wit. Walter’s latest novel is more hybrid beast than those earlier books: not quite fiction and not history but a splicing of the two, so that the invented rises to the occasion of the real and the real guides and determines the fate of the invented.... Which isn’t to say the book lacks brio or invention; it is full of both."
— New York Times Book Review
“The Cold Millions is a literary unicorn: a book about socio-economic disparity that’s also a page-turner, a postmodern experiment that reads like a potboiler, and a beautiful, lyric hymn to the power of social unrest in American history. It’s funny and harrowing, sweet and violent, innocent and experienced; it walks a dozen tightropes. Jess Walter is a national treasure.”
— Anthony Doerr, author of All the Light We Cannot See
“Jess Walter is a superb storyteller. His plot rolls on at a steady pace. His ear for dialogue, whatever the character, is acute. He knows when to amp up the prose with a telling metaphor…. As polished and hard as a diamond, The Cold Millions reminds us of America’s tempestuous past and suggests that all this is anything but past.”
— Boston Globe
“It’s a tremendous work, a vivid, propulsive, historical novel with a politically explosive backdrop that reverberates through our own.”
— USA Today
“Masterly. . . . Shifting perspectives and sharp plot twists contribute to the richness of the story, bringing a tumultuous time in American history to life. Walter illustrates how injustice can galvanize young men but also wreck them.”
— The New Yorker
“Beautiful Ruins author Walter again brings the magic.”
— People, Book of the Week
“Walter puts forth his most ambitious work yet, solidifying his place in the contemporary canon as one of our most gifted builders of fictional worlds.... It's often said that a novel contains the world; Walter brings new meaning to this phrase, peopling The Cold Millions with vaudeville stars, hobos, suffragists, tycoons, union agitators, policemen, and dozens of other vibrant characters. Warm and deeply humane, this transporting novel is a staggering achievement from a landmark writer.”
“Riveting. . . . With an expansive cast that includes anti-capitalist firebrands, menacing tycoons, a coalition of multifaceted, multiethnic itinerant workers and sundry ‘killers, detectives and anarchists,’ this book captures the audacity, promise, ugliness and beauty of American life.”
— Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Stunning…. The Cold Millions feels timed perfectly to this moment of stark income inequality, where the crevasse between billionaires and workers widens and activism increases…. Walter marshals a motley, fascinating cast of characters so finely drawn that they lift from the page…. I haven’t encountered a more satisfying and moving novel about the struggle for workers’ rights in America.”
— San Francisco Chronicle
“Superb…. a splendid postmodern rendition of the social realist novels of the 1930s by Henry Roth, John Steinbeck, and John Dos Passos, updated with strong female characters and executed with pristine prose. This could well be Walter’s best work yet.”
— Publishers Weekly, starred review
“A work of irresistible characters, harrowing adventures and rip-roaring fun … bursting with a dazzling range of outrageous characters…. One of the most captivating novels of the year.”
— Washington Post
"Expansive, beguiling…. In Flynn, Walter has found a sublime heroine: outspoken, brave, and beautiful, too. She takes on Spokane’s brutal and corrupt establishment with the kind of bravura that makes us yearn for her to time-travel to our era. Walter does a masterful job of using historical events and characters to draw parallels with what we face today, but the greatest triumph of The Cold Millions is how it mines literary realism but remains optimistic even in the face of tragedy. It’s a thrilling yarn that simultaneously underscores the cost of progress and celebrates the American spirit.”
— O, the Oprah Magazine
“The Beautiful Ruins author has produced another layered, multi-character panorama.”
“The Cold Millions will break your heart and make you hopeful at the same time.”
— Seattle Times
"A story of brotherhood, deceit, love and sacrifice that will have you holding your breath with every turn of the page."
“The fact that the same author has written books as wildly different and all as transporting as The Zero, The Financial Lives of the Poets, Beautiful Ruins, and now this latest tour de force is testimony to Walter’s protean storytelling power and astounding ability to set a scene, any scene…. We have heard that Jess Walter writes nonstop: Seven days a week, 365 days a year. Please, never stop.”
— Kirkus, starred review
“Strung up around true events and a handful of real people, Walter's latest is informed by intensive, ardent research and reverence for his home city; consider this book a train ticket to a past time and place. In addition to boldly voiced characters and dramatic suspense, in this century-ago tale of labor rights and wealth inequality readers will find plenty of modern relevance.”
— Booklist, starred review