“The Widows: a Novel” (Minotaur), by Jess Montgomery
The atmosphere of an old-fashioned Western permeates this intriguing debut that mixes workers’ rights, corruption, Prohibition and women’s rights set in the harshly stark Appalachian Ohio coal-mining country during 1925.
Beautifully plotted and filled with believable characters, “The Widows” explores an era and an area struggling to be a part of the modern 20th century, yet constantly pulled backward to its unsettled past. Jess Montgomery, executive director of the Antioch Writers’ Workshop, draws on actual historical incidents that richly explore the people behind events in the launch of this series that shows much potential.
“The Widows” are Lily Ross, married to Bronwyn County Sheriff Daniel Ross and pregnant with her third child, and Marvena Whitcomb, a moonshiner and union organizer whose common-law husband John was killed trying to rescue trapped miners. On the surface, the two women have nothing in common, but a connection is revealed after Daniel is killed when escorting a prisoner who was a miner. The women meet when Marvena, trying to find Daniel and unaware of the situation, shows up at his funeral to ask if Daniel has found her wayward daughter, Eula, or her brother, Tom. Reluctantly, Lily and Marvena begin an uneasy alliance, spurred on by their mutual grief over Daniel. Both women prove their strength and intelligence and that they are capable of standing up to men who routinely dismiss women. Marvena’s union activism has long set her apart. But Lily, appointed acting sheriff by men who think they can manage her, shows her mettle by taking her new position very seriously. This often puts her at odds with Daniel’s nasty half brother, Luther, and the Pinkertons he hired to control, with violence if necessary, the mine workers.
Montgomery skillfully explores the residents whose lives are ruled by the coal corporation that keeps them bound to their dangerous jobs and in poverty because of the high rent of the company-owned housing and rules about using the company store for all supplies. Many of the coal miners were World War I veterans, returning home only to find few opportunities and a home-grown war between the miners and the coal company. Lily and Marvena are just two of the widows who have lost their husbands to the mines, violence or disease; there’s a reason why one mine is nicknamed The Widowmaker. “The Widows” also shows how class differences influence how the residents deal with each other — manifested in Lily, who came from a well-off family, and Marvena, whose family was poor — and how this is overcome.
Lily is based on the life of Maude Collins, Ohio’s first female sheriff. While Marvena is based on activist Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, though Montgomery takes a more fictional approach with that character.
Montgomery’s storytelling skills and historical research in “The Widows” make this new series one to look forward to.
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