Reviews of The Cold Millions by Jess Walter

The Cold Millions

by Jess Walter

The Cold Millions by Jess Walter X
The Cold Millions by Jess Walter
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2020, 352 pages

    Sep 2021, 352 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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Book Summary

The author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Beautiful Ruins delivers another "literary miracle" (NPR) - a propulsive, richly entertaining novel about two adventure-seeking brothers, the enemies who threaten them, and the women who reveal to them an unjust world on the brink of upheaval.

The Dolan brothers 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 dashing 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 who introduces the brothers to a far more dangerous creature: a powerful mining magnate who will stop at nothing to keep his wealth and his hold on Ursula.

Dubious of his brother's idealism, Rye finds himself drawn to a fearless nineteen-year-old activist and feminist named Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, her passion sweeping him into the workers' cause. 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?

An intimate story of brotherhood, love, sacrifice and betrayal set against the panoramic backdrop of an early twentieth-century century America that eerily echoes our own time, The Cold Millions offers a stunning, kaleidoscopic portrait of a nation grappling with the chasm between rich and poor, between harsh realities and simple dreams. Featuring an unforgettable cast of cops and tramps, suffragists and socialists, madams and murderers, it is a powerful and moving tour de force from a "writer who has planted himself firmly in the first rank of American authors" (Boston Globe).


It seemed funny, as they walked the grounds, that Rye had imagined Lem Brand would hire someone to brag for him—he would have been just as likely to hire someone to draw his breaths. He gushed with pride over every aspect of his estate: here, a two-story carriage house with room for four premier autos and an apartment for his mechanic; there, Spanish stables for two of the finest breeding horses in the western United States; up there, a sledding hill and archery course. He described everything with such care ("a footbridge made from Amazon rosewood assembled with no nails or screws"), it was as if he'd built it with his own hands.

Ursula stayed a few steps behind as they walked; clearly, she'd had this tour before. They were also trailed by several members of the house staff, led by a thick man with bushy eyebrows who introduced himself simply as Willard and who had a pistol strapped beneath his long coat. He eyed Rye suspiciously as they walked.

They looped back into the house, ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!
  1. The book opens with a first-person narrator—Officer Waterbury—who is killed at the end of his brief section. Why do you think the author chose to start the book this way? Did you find it effective?
  2. The character Jules says, "People expect a story to always mean the same thing, but I have found that stories change like people do." While the story of the novel's hero, Rye Dolan, is told primarily in the third person, his narration is interwoven with chapters from the firstperson perspective of supporting characters. Why do you think the author chose to structure the novel in this way? How does this choice relate to Jules' observation?
  3. Debating with Gig, Early Reston says, "I just don't see how you fight a class war without ...
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BookBrowse Review


Beyond just the events, though, the author's attention to historical detail is impressive, truly transporting readers to an earlier era. Historical fiction doesn't get any better than this; its fast pace, stellar writing and compelling characters make The Cold Millions a winner, and I highly recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in this period of American history. Walter's fans will certainly find much to love about the book, and it will likely attract him many new followers as well...continued

Full Review (709 words)

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(Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

Media Reviews

Washington Post
The Cold Millions is a work of irresistible characters, harrowing adventures and rip-roaring fun...Walter's new tragicomedy about this moment of American history is one of the most captivating novels of the year.

New York Times
If a bit of burlesque creeps in around the edges of Walter's showgirls, tramps and ardent idealists, as perhaps it should, very real violence and the tidal pull of history keep the book tethered. So do injustice, poverty, bigotry, ecological disaster...There is...a fealty to fact and to strict cause-and-effect, with an abiding preference for the historically plausible over the fictionally possible in both plot and characterization.

Booklist (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.

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.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
[T]his latest tour de force is testimony to Walter's protean storytelling power and astounding ability to set a scene...We have heard that Jess Walter writes nonstop: Seven days a week, 365 days a year. Please, never stop.

O, the Oprah Magazine
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.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
[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.

Library Journal
A page-turner by a talented author who depicts fascinating characters both real and imagined.

Author Blurb Anthony Doerr, author of All the Light We Cannot See
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.

Reader Reviews

Tricia Gould

Social reform with a ripping good story
Gangsters posing as upright citizens and activists treated as criminals. Good stuff and so relevant today.

Another winner from versatile Jess Walters
Thank you to HarperCollins and Edelweiss for sharing Jess Walter’s new novel. I really enjoyed this historical fiction title. Jess Walters is a great and multifaceted writer. I’ve started comparing him to Chris Bohjalian and Mary Doria Russell, ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)

Red flyer for IWW featuring the words One Big Union and We Want the WorldThe plot of Jess Walter's novel, The Cold Millions, revolves around the actions of the newly-formed Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in Spokane, Washington in 1909.

The groundwork for the IWW was laid by the American Federation of Labor (AFL), a union formed in Columbus, Ohio in 1886. That organization's purpose was to ensure employers provided a safe environment for their workers, that businesses compensated union members for on-the-job injuries, and that they paid their workers an adequate wage. Formed as an umbrella group for other smaller unions, the AFL initially allowed pretty much anyone to join. Within a decade, however, it coalesced around organizations that mostly supported craft unions (carpenters, blacksmiths, masons, ...

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