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Wiley Cash, Karen Cox on ‘N.C. Bookwatch’

Wiley Cash talks about “The Last Ballad” on “North Carolina Bookwatch” today at 11 a.m. and Thursday, Jan. 18 at 5 p.m.

Cash’s third novel, set in 1929’s Gaston County’s textile mill country, forces us to confront uncomfortable facts about the brutal conditions workers faced on the job and in their struggles to make a life on their meager pay.

Ella May Wiggins, the lead character in Cash’s book, is based on a real person, who was killed while participating in a major strike at Loray Mills in Gastonia. The 28-year-old Wiggins had given birth to nine children and was working a 72-hour week for which she earned $9. She wrote and sang protest songs, some of which were later performed by Woody Guthrie.

Cash follows her decision to support the strike at Loray Mills where her ballad singing at worker rallies mobilized audiences more than the speeches of union leaders. He relates how her actions provoked negative responses from union opponents that led to her death.

The picture Cash paints is an ugly one, showing conditions of Wiggins and her fellow workers to be only a step or two away from serfdom and slavery. But Cash’s storytelling turns these facts into a poignant, moving and important novel.

Karen Cox talks with guest host Malinda Maynor Lowery about “Goat Castle” on “Bookwatch” Jan. 21, at 11 a.m. and Jan. 25 at 5 p.m.

In 1932, the city of Natchez, Mississippi, reckoned with an unexpected influx of journalists and tourists as the lurid story of a local murder was splashed across headlines nationwide.

Two eccentrics, Richard Dana and Octavia Dockery — known in the press as the “Wild Man” and the “Goat Woman” — enlisted an African American man named George Pearls to rob their reclusive neighbor, Jennie Merrill, at her estate.

During the attempted robbery, Merrill was shot and killed. The crime drew national coverage when it came to light that Dana and Dockery, the alleged murderers, shared their huge, decaying antebellum mansion with their goats and other livestock, which prompted journalists to call the estate “Goat Castle.”

Pearls was killed by an Arkansas policeman in an unrelated incident before he could face trial. An innocent black woman named Emily Burns was ultimately sent to prison for the murder of Merrill. Dana and Dockery not only avoided punishment but also lived to profit from the notoriety of the murder by opening their derelict home to tourists.

Strange, fascinating and sobering, “Goat Castle” tells the story of this local feud, killing, investigation and trial, showing how a true crime tale of fallen Southern grandeur and murder obscured an all too familiar story of racial injustice.

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