‘The Widows’ by Jess Montgomery is a gripping historical fiction set in turbulent coal mining Appalachia


In “The Widows,” author Jess Montgomery visits a time and place that is not often memorialized in fiction. In a corner of rural Ohio, where coal mines control the lives of the residents and the immigrants who come to America to work in the mines, the lives of the miners and those who live in town intersect through the relationship of two women, both widows, who fight for justice.

The story is told through the viewpoints of the two women: Lily, the sheriff’s widow who is determined to find out why her husband was killed; and Marvena, the widow of a union organizer, who takes up his work to unionize the mines and protect the miners from the horribly dangerous working conditions and controlling business practices.

The characters in the story are well developed, and the women are charismatic, admirable, and sympathetic. The relationships in the story are complex and important. Lily and Marvena are both bound together through their relationship with Daniel Ross, Lily’s deceased husband and Marvena’s friend from childhood, although they aren’t aware that relationship exists until the start of the story.

Montgomery weaves a web that connects most of the important characters in the story. Marvena’s brother is accused of killing the sheriff. Lily is appointed sheriff in her husband’s stead until the election for a new sheriff, and she is determined to find out who killed her husband and why he was killed. The evidence she uncovers does not support what she has been told.

The men in the story consistently underestimate the women — and isn’t that a fact of life? These women are smart and clever, and the ending brings a brilliant conclusion to the issues addressed in the novel. Along the way, readers learn about how mining companies kept the miners in non-union mines indebted to the company by paying them in company scrip instead of dollars. The miners had to pay rent and buy groceries and other items at the company store with company scrip — so they all accepted scrip for their wages. If they were fired by the company, they usually ended up owing the company money and had to live in tents while they worked to pay back the owed scrip. Conditions in the mines were abysmal, and when workers were injured or became ill, they either worked or didn’t get paid.

The book really shows readers the lives of miners in that time, and it’s interesting learning that basically, the miners were like sharecroppers in the South, but with more dangerous working conditions. This story clearly illustrates that only through unions, the might of workers working together, can workers demand equity, fair pay, and decent working conditions. The story also touches on this time during Prohibition when moonshine was common, and “tonics” were made of alcohol and legally permitted. Organized crime, in this story headed by George Vogel, a powerful crime lord, controlled politicians, government, and even local moonshiners.

The story is also a love story. It’s about Lily’s love for Daniel and also about Marvena’s love for Daniel. While they both loved the same man, they come to respect and like each other as well. In fact, some of the characters in this story are not who they appear to be, and those twists are handled with dexterity and all-around fine writing. The story is wholly satisfying and lovely, and readers will be thinking about the characters and the setting long after they have turned the last page.

Continue reading about Lily and Prohibition in the sequels: The Hollows and The Stills.

Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Minotaur Books, the publisher, for review purposes.

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