The Widows, by Jess Montgomery
I was looking forward to reading The Widows because it takes place in Ohio (my home state) and it involves Appalachian culture (which I’m interested in). And once I started to read it, I couldn’t put it down.
One of the main characters in The Widows, Lily Ross, was inspired by the first female sheriff in Ohio (Maude Collins, pictured above, from the Vinton County web site). When Lily’s husband, the sheriff, is murdered in chapter 1, she is asked to take over for him until the special election can be held. The men who ask her do not expect her to begin investigating her husband’s death, thereby uncovering a tangle of deception and corruption involving the county’s main employer, the owner of a coal mine.
The other main character, Marvena Whitcomb, was inspired by union organizer Mary Harris Jones. At the beginning of the novel, Marvena and Lily have never met, but as the story progresses, their lives become entangled in ways they never could have suspected.
The story is told in alternating chapters from Lily’s and Marvena’s points of view. I will admit that, at the beginning of the novel, I had trouble telling them apart. They are both capable women and mothers of young children, and both live in the same rural county. However, as soon as they meet (in chapter 6), their differences become apparent. Lily is younger, financially better off, and lives in town. Marvena’s place is so far out in the country that few people know how to get there, and she rarely comes to town. She makes a living from illegal moonshine. She has lost a tooth and her hair is graying.
The author has done a masterful job of incorporating a wealth of daily life details without bogging down the gripping story. At one point Lily gives her best friend Hildy step-by-step directions on how to drive the sheriff’s car. At another point, as Marvena makes moonshine in her cave hideout, we learn how a still works. Appalachian songs, food, and crafts are also woven into the story.
I thought the ending was breathtaking. Together, Lily and Marvena come up with a solution that men, so often committed to vengeance and to a lone-wolf mentality, may never have considered.