In her debut novel, The Widows, Jess Montgomery brings to life strong female characters who work together to solve a mystery in a small 1920s Ohio mining town. This is the first in the Kinship Historical Mystery series and it won several awards, including the Individual Excellence Award (2016) in Literary Arts from the Ohio Arts Council.
The two main characters, Lily Ross and Marvena Whitcomb, were inspired by real-life women, Maude Collins, Ohio’s first female sheriff, and Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, a union organizer. The mystery begins when Lily learns that her husband Daniel, sheriff of the fictional Bronwyn County, is murdered while transporting a prisoner. Within a day, Lily is sworn in as sheriff in his place until the next election a few months later. On the day of Daniel’s funeral, Marvena and the younger of her two daughters arrive at Lily’s house looking for Daniel to find out if he had news about her older daughter. Marvena is also a widow, having lost her common-law husband, John, in a mining incident the prior year.
In her role as interim sheriff, Lily looks into the death of her husband. By having the protagonist investigate a crime so close to her heart, Montgomery adds a layer of emotional complexity and interest to the story. On top of this, Lily learns through the process that there are many things she did not know about Daniel. One of the most shocking is his relationship with Marvena, which compounds the tension of the situation. Lily quickly realizes she needs Marvena’s help to solve Daniel’s murder. With some hesitation, the two women work together to find the truth.
Lily and Marvena are an odd couple on the surface. Lily has a comfortable lifestyle, is shapely and pretty, and has been formally educated. In contrast, Marvena lives in a shack and is scrawny with a ruddy face and a missing tooth. As Lily and Marvena get to know and trust each other, they discover what they have in common. Above all, they are both mothers, fiercely loyal to their children and beliefs, and willing to do what is required of them to protect the people they love. When the women realize their commonalities, a tentative friendship begins to form.
Montgomery has created two admirable female characters in Lily and Marvena. Lily has a quiet strength about her. She does her best to be diplomatic in dealing with people, but is not afraid to take action when necessary. When she is serving dinner to an ill-mannered prisoner, she shows him that he should not be fooled by her small stature:
Instead, he reaches his good hand through the bars to grab for her. But Lily seizes his wrist before he can touch her breast and yanks him so hard into the bars that one side of his face smashes into the iron. He glares at her through his narrowed, bruised eye, like a walleye fish. He tries to jerk away, but Lily, stronger than her five-foot-three frame suggests, holds tight.
Then, at her husband’s funeral, some miners and Pinkertons (hired muscle for the mining company) start an argument. Lily becomes angry: “‘Enough!’ The voice is loud but not shrill. For just a moment, Lily is bemused—hearing her mama’s commanding voice—and then she realizes as the crowd stares that it is her own voice that has risen.”
Lily learns that she has more strength than she realizes as the story progresses. She goes from being a wife, mother, and part-time jail maiden to being a widow, single mother, and sheriff. Rather than crumbling under the stress of her circumstances, she takes stock of the situation and does what she feels needs to be done.
While Lily’s strength lies in considering a situation before taking action, Marvena is both more driven and more passionate. After her husband, John, dies in the mines, she takes up his efforts to unionize the miners with whom he worked. She knows her decision to continue his work puts her and her daughters in potential danger, but she feels it is what needs to be done.
When one of the men is beaten almost to death by the Pinkertons, she goes to help. While she is helping tend to the beaten miner, the man’s wife sobs. Marvena responds by grabbing the woman and giving her a quick shake to silence her: “Honey, there’ll be time for wailing later,” Marvena says. “Not that it’ll do any good. Now he needs you to be calm.” As the man dies, Marvena focuses on being strong for the cause, rather than being caught up in the sense of loss, which is still fresh from the death of her own husband. The pain is compounded by her teenage daughter having recently run away without a trace. Instead of falling apart in response to grief and fear, Marvena sets aside her own feelings and soldiers forth to help the cause and protect her family.
The book’s chapters alternate between Lily and Marvena. As a result, some events are repeated along the way, but it is interesting to consider the different perspectives on the same situation. Switching the character in each chapter also allows the reader to watch the formation of the relationship between Lily and Marvena by seeing each woman’s view of the other. The author takes advantage of the alternation by presenting clues to the mystery in flashbacks from both women, keeping the reader’s attention as the story unfolds.
Montgomery does a good job of bringing in historical events to add to the richness of this work. There is mention of the fire set by strikers in the mine in New Straitsville, which still burns after more than 100 years, and a strike after the Panic of 1893 which ended so badly that it almost destroyed the union. She also mentions the Battle for Blair Mountain, a conflict that occurred just four years before The Widows takes place. John, Marvena’s husband, was a survivor of the battle. When he spoke of unionization, he shared the story of how he’d left behind his elderly parents to support strikers at Blair Mountain in Logan County, West Virginia, when it turned into the largest armed uprising since the Civil War, lasting five days with weeks of skirmishes after that.
The Widows is a well-paced historical mystery with inspiring lead female characters and an engaging element of realism. Readers will enjoy being transported back in time to the Appalachian mining towns of the 1920s while unraveling a murder mystery and watching the struggle for unionization unfold.