‘The Wid­ows’ is in­trigu­ing de­but by Jess Mont­gomery

Miami Herald (Sunday) - - Books - BY OLINE H. COGDILL As­so­ci­ated Press

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 coalmin­ing 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 Da- niel 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 com­pa­ny­owned hous­ing and rules about us­ing the com­pany store for all supplies. Many of the coal min­ers were World War I veter- ans, 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.


This cover image re­leased by Mino­taur shows "The Wid­ows" by Jess Mont­gomery. (Mino­taur via AP)

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