Bellingham book lovers, union enthusiasts and fans of early 20th century history had a lot to look forward to when author Jess Walter visited Whatcom County to showcase his book, “The Cold Millions.”
Starting March 1 with a five-course book dinner at Evolve Chocolate and Cafe and concluding March 4 with an online discussion with Walter, these four days were filled with discussions and events revolving around “The Cold Millions.”
“The Cold Millions” is a historical fiction novel set in the early 1900s in Spokane, Washington. It follows two brothers as they navigate their way through tumultuous times and the newly-formed Industrial Workers of the World.
“There is never one inspiration for a novel,” Walter said via email. “I had mulled over writing about the Free Speech Protests of 1909 in Spokane for more than a decade, driven by the desire to write about the early labor movement, the wild and wooly turn of the century in Spokane and the cost of Western expansion.”
Another factor that led to the creation of “The Cold Millions” was Walter’s own family. His father was a union leader and steelworker for 35 years and both of his grandfathers were itinerant workers at points in their lives.
Walter said “The Cold Millions” was a perfect outlet to write about issues like income inequality, civil disobedience and the rights of workers in a way that wouldn’t be didactic in an overly-polarized way.
Whatcom READs, the program hosting “The Cold Millions” events, works with libraries throughout Whatcom County, Village Books and several other community sponsors to find ways to bring people together through reading.
Mary Vermillion, the community relations manager for Whatcom County Library System, was heavily involved in scheduling the weekend’s events. Vermillion is also a fan of Walter’s writing. They both spent a considerable amount of time as reporters at the beginning of their careers.
For Walter, his time as a reporter, starting at the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, helped shape and develop the way he writes his novels and short stories. In 1992, he was a finalist for a Pulitzer prize for his work covering Ruby Ridge, an 11-day violent standoff between the FBI and white separatist Randy Weaver in Idaho.
“I think the most important thing I got from working in newspapers was the sense of curiosity that a journalist must have, which is a great tool for the novelist, too,” Walter said. “Being a reporter taught me to explore the world, to research, to understand how systems work, to capture how people talk and what they want and to communicate these things to the public.”
In total, there were six events connected to Walter’s book, each event at a different venue.
The event on March 1 started at 6 p.m. and displayed chef Christy Fox’s attempt to create a five-course meal inspired by the book. The event cost $85 and was located on the second floor of Village Books. On March 2 from 11 a.m. to noon, Deming Public Library manager Katrina Carabba and Public Services Assistant Erin Suda co-hosted a conversation with Jess Walter at the Deming location.
For those interested in learning the nitty-gritty details of an author's craft, an event taking place at Village Books was the place to be. On March 3, from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Village Books hosted “The Art and Craft of Writing with Jess Walter.”
On March 3 from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., “An Evening With Jess Walter” took place at the Mount Baker Theatre. Vermillion said this is Whatcom READS’ premiere event and the 2024 Whatcom READS title was announced at this time. “Red Paint: The Ancestral Autobiography of a Coast Salish Punk,” written by Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe, is the 2024 Whatcom READS title.
An online conversation between Walter and Paul Hanson, co-owner of Village Books, wrapped up the “The Cold Millions” events on March 4. Hanson said those interested can hear this conversation on KMRE 102.3 FM or on the Village Books podcast.
Hanson said he prepared his own questions and had also heard from various members of the community to create a well-rounded conversation.
After reading “The Cold Millions” front to back three times, Hanson said there are many things that jump out to him about the book.
“He just really brings history to life, so you learn something, but you’re entertained while you’re doing it. And this time in Spokane history, it was a really interesting and fraught time. I think no character is wholly good and no character is wholly evil. It’s quite a tapestry of folks.”
Hanson’s and Vermillion’s high praises for the book led back to their central goal to connect a community through reading.
“I think the books are one thing, but our mission is building community,” Hanson said. “It’s a place where you can come and not just connect with your next great read and get good service and great recommendations, but you can also connect with other people in your community.”
Similarly, Vermillion said that Whatcom READS sets up many events centered around their featured books so that neighbors can come together and talk about the book once the events have concluded.
“There’s just a lot of different programming that [Whatcom READS] creates and offers to the community for free so that after they read the book, they can then come together with their neighbors to discuss it to think about some of the issues that are portrayed in the book,” Vermillion said.
For Walter, writing, just like reading, provides a gateway into other worlds.
“Every book is different. I suppose that’s the most challenging part,” he said. “You tend to think that because you’ve written one book the next one will come easier, but each time, I am reminded, I haven’t written this book yet. The characters, the language, the structure — all of it has to be reinvented, reimagined, reworked and rewritten. And then, if you’re lucky, it coheres into something that feels like a story, and, if you’re really lucky, it starts to feel like literature.”
Mathew Callaghan (he/him) is a senior sports reporter for the Front this quarter. He plans to major in journalism and minor in law, diversity and justice through Fairhaven. In his free time, Mathew likes to write, hike, read and play basketball.
You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.