One of our recommended books is The Cold Millions by Jess Walter


A Novel

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,

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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?

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  • Harper Perennial
  • Paperback
  • October 2021
  • 352 Pages
  • 9780062868091

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About Jess Walter

Jess Walter is the author of The Cold MillionsJess 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’sMcSweeney’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.

Author Website


“One of the most captivating novels of the year.” – Washington Post

“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

“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

Discussion Questions

  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 the war.” This is a persistent theme throughout the novel—bombs versus speeches. Where do you think the author falls in this debate? What are your own thoughts?
  4. At one point in the novel, we read that “Rye thought that history was like a parade. When you were inside it, nothing else mattered. You could hardly believe the noise—the marching and juggling and playing of horns. But most people were not in the parade. They experienced it from the sidewalk, from the street, watched it pass, and when it was on to the next place, they had nothing to do but go back to their quiet lives.” Discuss.
  5. The main action in the book takes place during the Free Speech riots of 1909 and 1910; of the years that follow, Rye observes, “I wondered if the whole world wasn’t collapsing. The news was all famine and influenza, murder and war, every day some fresh horror.” What parallels do you see to current events? Does the novel’s historical lens provide you with any insight into what is happening today?
  6. Rye has his epiphany about the “cold millions” of the title in Lem Brand’s library; War and Peace plays a supporting role in the novel. Discuss the role of books and literature in the novel. What is the symbolism of the fact that Gig’s “prized possession” consists of volumes 1 and 3 of War and Peace, “two fifths of the finest novel ever written”?
  7. At one point, Early Reston asks Rye, Who are you? and Rye concedes that it was a fair question; at another point, when asked to identify himself, he claims that he’s ‘not anything.’ At the end of the novel, Fred Moore tells Rye that “She [Gurley Flynn] always believed, as I did, that you were a pawn in the other side’s treachery.” Rye himself wonders about Ursula—and by extension himself—”just what sort of ethics a person needed to survive so long in cages with cougars.” How does Rye’s identity evolve over the course of the novel? Do his ‘ethics’ change?
  8. Early in the narrative, Rye notes that “when Gig was smitten, by cause or by woman, there was no sense in him”; he also notes that he “didn’t like it when Gig ran with these union types; he thought their revolutionary banter half foolish and half dangerous and was never quite sure which was which.” And yet Rye is drawn into the cause alongside his brother. Discuss.
  9. Water is at the center of the narrative, both literally and figuratively. In telling his story about running the ferry, Jules observes, “One man to a boat…. We all go over alone.” Rye notes of Jules’s stories that the “meaning was like an undercurrent beneath the surface.” Discuss.
  10. The novel’s two main female characters—Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Urusula the Great— each receive a fair amount of time on the page before they get to speak for themselves. When they do tell their stories, do they change the perception you’ve formed of them from others’ narratives?
  11. The story of First Ursula’s creation of her persona echoes Gemma’s observation, “What was life if not one invention after another?” How does this relate to the other main characters in the novel?
  12. Ursula the Great observes that “a woman owns nothing in this life except her memories” several times, and yet when Rye goes to offer her money after Gig’s death, she is the only one to refuse him, telling him that she “owned the hotel free and clear now.” What changes for Ursula, and how does she help effect that change?
  13. Gemma says of Jules: “I think he came to believe it was better to choose your life, and that even choosing your death was better than letting someone else choose your life.” How is this reflected in the choices the reader realizes Jules has made in his own life? Did the revelation of his true relationship to Gemma come as a surprise to you?
  14. Lem Brand describes Early Reston as a “detective posing as an anarchist or an anarchist posing as a detective. The stories you hear: that he’s an agent who got in so deep he forgot which side he was on. Or that he was never on a side.” Early Reston says of himself: “I’m on my side, Rye. Always have been. Like any man, if he’s being honest.” Discuss.
  15. How are Del Dalveaux and Early Reston similar, and how are they different? Did you find that you had sympathy for either character?
  16. Thinking back about Gurley Flynn, Rye says, “I knew cops and killers, detectives and anarchists, and not one of them had her strength, could have done what she did.” And yet he also notes that “It didn’t matter what he did, what Gurley did, what Fred Moore did, what any of them did. Somewhere there was a roomful of wealthy old men where everything was decided.” Do you agree with him?
  17. The epigraph to the epilogue comes from Tolstoy: “Life did not stop, and one had to live.” How does this fit with what follows, in which Rye finally speaks in the first person? Did you like knowing what happened in the aftermath of the novel’s main events?
  18. Remembering Gurley, Rye writes: “‘Men sometimes say to me: You might win the battle, Gurley, but you’ll never win the war. But no one wins the war, Ryan. Not really. I mean, we’re all going to die, right? But to win a battle now and then? What more could you want?'” Discuss.


Waterbury 1909


DARKNESS CAME on that town like a candle being snuffed. This was my wife’s primary complaint about Spokane after two years of me copping there, what Rebecca called the “drastic dark” of autumn. We’d come from Sioux City, a town she still called home, and where I’d walked an easier beat. I found Spokane in a land-spec ad, but the piece I bought turned out to be cliff-face basalt and not arable, so we took four rooms in a brick apartment north of the river, and I got on with that roughneck police force. These were hard years, ’08 and ’09, everything about Spokane hard, bringing to mind Rebecca’s word, drastic. Steep hills, deep canyons, cold winters, hot summers, and those dark autumn evenings that made her so melancholy, when five felt like midnight.

It was one of those nights Chief Sullivan pulled me aside. A burglar was prowling the big houses on Cannon Hill, and he needed good, sober cops on it. Nothing got up the mayor’s ass like someone prying south-side windows, stealing candlesticks from the Victorians on the hill, the mayor quick to remind Sullivan that he was acting police chief and his act was to make the moneyed wives of those mining millionaires feel safe. Sullivan assigned me and two other cops to patrol the lower South Hill and catch this master burglar.

It was vagrant season. “So all’s you’ll miss is bum harvest,” Chief Sullivan said. Good by me, as I preferred real police work to the endless roust-and-run of tramps anyway.

Sullivan talked up this South Hill window-crawler like he was the dastardly demon of hell himself. One of the silver barons had threatened to bring in a Pinkerton, and nothing ate at Sullivan like someone hiring private. There were six detective agencies in Spokane, three nationals—Pinkerton, Thiel, and Allied—and three local thug shops used by the mining companies for union busting. The national detectives treated us city cops like horse clods, fine for running bums and whores but about as helpful solving crime as a blind ranch dog. I thought this perception not entirely unfair, and had complained more than once about the laziness and graft of the old brute cops. I’d even considered putting in papers with the privates myself.

If I stayed a cop, it would be for John Sullivan, for I admired the man. Sully was honest and affable, off-the-boat County Kerry, six-four and 220, five of those pounds brush mustache. He’d come on the force just after the Great Fire of ’89, with brutes like Shannon and Clegg, and to hear them tell it, those three had singlehandedly driven out the last of the Indians and tamed the whole frontier town.

But unlike those others, Sullivan wasn’t only brute. He was brave. Savvy. In ’01 two holdup men set up shop on the north end of Howard Bridge, like fairy tale ogres, robbing every wagon that crossed. When Sullivan came to arrest them, one man pulled a pistol and squeezed off a couple before big John could knock the gun from his hand. As he was beating the robbers, Sully realized his boot was filling with blood. The ogre had shot him in the leg, below the groin. He dragged both outlaws to jail, then rode his horse to the hospital, where he promptly underwent surgery, met a nurse half his age, and married her.

How could you not want to work for such a man?

Sully could grow nostalgic for the rough old days, but he was also clear: the old Klondike town had grown into a proper city and the time was up for a brute like Clegg, who saw his job as hassling tramps and whores into paying him for protection, and was not above running a girl himself if she came up short. “Nah, it’s the last shift for them old boys,” Sullivan said when I complained about Clegg taking booze from the evidence room.

He made a point of promoting cops like Hage and Roff and me, for our brains and our rectitude, I guess, but also because we didn’t care if Bill Shannon could throw a keg through a window, or that Hub Clegg once rode a patrol horse through a burning tavern to rescue a favored sporting girl.

That’s why he put us three on the Cannon Hill burglar. But three men was a big commitment during vagrant season, with the east end full of floaters and union men coming from all over to agitate the Stevens Street job agencies. I was not unsympathetic to their cause, for there was no denying the corruption of those employment agents, who charged the poorest men a dollar for suspect job leads. But the IWW protested by filling the town with stinking foreign rabble, and this brought out the tavern girls, opium and faro boys, mystics, seers, and pickpockets, a cloud of vice that swarmed the tenderloin like mayflies over a putrid stream.

“Take this window thief down fast, boys,” Sullivan told us, “for we’ll need your batons the other side of it.”

And so, Hage and Roff and I ventured out into that cold dark evening. We took an empty trolley up the South Hill, got off at the first stop. We were in plainclothes and overcoats, with fur hats for warmth and so my bald head wouldn’t reflect the streetlights. The plan was for Hage to amble the alleys while I walked the street in front and Roff the street behind. We’d square each block this way, work our way up the hill starting at Seventh. There was a low ceiling of chimney smoke, and the streetlights cast shadows long and eerie. As I walked, I peered past split curtains into grand houses that burned gold with wood fire and candlelight, and I missed my own home fire, Rebecca and the kids, the night so cold and quiet I doubted our thief could be afoot.

After Seventh, Hage and I met on Adams, at the alley entrance, where Roff had stopped to piss on the knuckled root of a maple.

“I don’t like it,” Hage said.

“Roff pissing on trees?”

“I don’t like that, either, but I mean walking up this hill hoping to bump into some ace burglar on the job.”

“Well, we won’t find him rousting bums downtown with Clegg.”

“We will if he’s a bum.”

“Fancy work for a bum.”

“I suppose so.”

Roff had finished pissing. We turned the next block and split up again at Ninth, where I was admiring the pillared porches of the big houses and paused to light my pipe. I wondered then if Rebecca’s feelings about Spokane might change if I could ever get us off poverty flats and into one of these grand houses on the hillside.

Wasn’t likely on a cop’s salary; Chief Sullivan himself lived in the flats. Anyway, I didn’t think even these grand houses could make my wife happy. Not anymore. Not here. What was it about these steep, western, water-locked cities—Seattle, Spokane, San Francisco? All three I’d visited, and in all three, the money flowed straight uphill. It

made me think of something I’d heard about the Orient, that water drained the opposite way there. Who wanted to live in a place where water spun backward or money flowed uphill? These towns that had no business being towns, straddling islands and bays and cliffs and canyons and waterfalls.

I fell deeper into this somber mood and was thinking Rebecca’s word, drastic, when Roff stepped from the shadows.

“You got something?” I asked. “Or—”

I couldn’t say what came next: the crack, me yelling, “Stop,” or the flash, or realizing this wasn’t Roff. As to what came last, I have no doubts, for I doubled over and held my flaming, open guts. There was another order that made sense (not Roff, “Stop,” flash, crack, doubled over, flaming guts), but I couldn’t place it—

The man who was not Roff was running away, his long black coat flapping, his shoes clicking on cobblestone, and I thought of Sullivan taking a gunshot to the leg and still bringing in his man, and I managed to get my revolver and squeeze four off, but I fired wildly and the man ducked between two houses down the block.

I was folded in half, pitched forward on my knees in gravel, my guts a sinkhole, and I cried out, to my shame—

Hage was first to me, saying my name over and over, “Alfred, Alfred, Alfred.”

“He shot me!” What grave disappointment, my lack of imagination. When I think of all the things a man could say. Shakespeare or Greek or even the Bible. Proper last words. But all I could manage was “He shot me.”

“I know, Alfred,” Hage said. “I’m sorry.”

Hage reached into my coat, around to my back. “Roff!” he yelled. I could hear in his voice that there was no exit hole. The bullet was inside. They would have to go for it.

I’d heard from the old cops that a mortal wound did not hurt as much, but this, like everything about the brutes, every word out of their fat mouths, was a fairy tale, a justification, a pernicious lie.

“Roff!” Hage yelled. “Waterbury’s shot!”

“How could they know?” I said.


“How could they know what a mortal wound feels like?” Even to my ear the words were garbled, like I was talking underwater.

My thoughts, too, leaked out: A gut shot could take hours, days, but the result was the same: agony and—

Other thoughts crowded: Had I eaten dinner? Was that to be my last meal? Who would tell Rebecca? Would she mend this shirt? Maybe she could sell my clothes and make a little money. I reached down to feel if the bullet had gone through my coat.

“Coat’s fine,” I said, but my voice sounded far off.

“Roff!” Hage yelled again. “He shot Alfred!”

“Lay me down,” I said, and Hage helped me onto my side.

“Roff!” Hage yelled again.

“Rebecca,” I said, but it was bubbles in water. I wanted to make sure that she knew—what? I could not think. “Rebecca,” I said again, clearer this time. And even if I had memorized all of Shakespeare and the Bible, I suppose this is what I would have wanted to say at the end, Rebecca on my lips, RebeccaRebecca, over and over, into the dark.