Although it’s set in Ohio, not West Virginia, Jess Montgomery’s new novel seems likely to resonate with many Mountain State readers who will recognize that the book’s coal country setting easily could have been West Virginia rather than Ohio.
Montgomery is the Literary Life columnist for the Dayton Daily News; a former writer in residence at the Thurber House in Columbus, Ohio; and the executive director of the renowned Antioch Writers’ Workshop at Yellow Springs, Ohio.
“The Widows” (Minotaur Books, $26.99) is her first novel.
An historical mystery, it’s the intriguing story of two women whose lives collide when the man they both love is murdered.
As the novel opens, Lily Ross learns that her husband, Daniel Ross, a widely respected sheriff in 1920s Ohio, has been shot and killed while transporting a prisoner. She is devastated and vows to find her husband’s killer and avenge his death.
But just hours after Daniel’s funeral, a stranger appears at Lily’s door: Marvena Whitcomb, a coal miner’s widow, who’s unaware that Daniel has been killed. As Marvena explains to Lily, Daniel had promised her he would investigate the disappearance of her wayward teenage daughter, Eula. Now she’s come to his home, hoping to learn if the sheriff had found any trace of the missing girl.
Soon Lily and Marvena realize Daniel was not the man that either of them believed him to be — and his murder is far more complex than either of them could have imagined.
Lily is appointed acting sheriff by men who think she will be easy to control. They couldn’t be more wrong.
Her new badge empowers her to investigate her husband’s murder. And it also enables her to work at heading off a threatened bloody showdown between the miners who work at the deadly mine known as the “Widowmaker” and the hated Pinkerton detectives employed by the mine’s ruthless owner.
A fear hangs over the region that it could see a conflict much like West Virginia’s Battle of Blair Mountain, a bloody clash between striking miners and the coal companies’ hired guns where the shooting ended only after federal troops arrived.
Lily and Marvena have more in common than Daniel. Marvena’s husband and Lily’s father both died trying to rescue trapped miners only months before.
Bonded by their shared tragedies, their determination to find out who killed Daniel and their concern for the plight of the mine’s workers, the two women become unlikely allies.
Montgomery says that in writing her novel she was inspired by the true stories of two women: Maude Collins, the first female sheriff in the state of Ohio, whose husband died in the line of duty in 1925, and Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, the firebrand United Mine Workers organizer.
At the novel’s end, Daniel’s murderer is unmasked and an uneasy truce is established between the miners and a new company that purchases the mine. And Lily, who was only appointed to serve as sheriff until the next election, has decided to run for the job, thus perhaps setting the stage for a follow-up novel.