Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Fiction Review: The Widows

I just (hours ago!) finished listening to The Widows by Jess Montgomery, which was recommended by the Book Cougars podcast (they also interviewed the author in episode 68). I highly recommend their podcast - they are friends of mine from Booktopia, and I always look forward to a new episode! Their recommendation of this novel was spot-on. It's a captivating mix of murder mystery, historical fiction, and family drama set in 1924 Ohio.

Lily Ross is devastated when she hears that her beloved husband, Daniel, their town's sheriff, has been killed while transporting a prisoner. She has two young children to take care of and is pregnant with a third. After Daniel's funeral, with a houseful of people, Lily is surprised when a woman she doesn't know, Marvena Whitcomb, arrives on her front porch and demands to see Daniel, unaware of his recent death. She's the widow of a coal miner from the next town over, where Daniel's half-brother, Luther, runs the mine, and she says that Daniel had promised to look for her missing teen daughter. It's clear to Lily right away that Marvena knew Daniel well...but how well? Shortly after the funeral, Lily is asked to temporarily serve as sheriff until a new election can be held. She agrees, determined to find out exactly how Daniel died and answer the nagging questions she has about aspects of the account. This will also allow her to finish the investigation that Daniel may have started into the whereabouts of Marvena's older daughter. Marvena herself is wrapped up in controversial plans to try to unionize the mine, more committed to the cause than ever since her husband (and Lily's father) died six months ago in a horrible explosion nicknamed The Widowmaker. Though the two widows are first suspicious (and perhaps a bit jealous) of each other, their similarities soon join them in shared purposes. Lily investigates both Daniel's death and Marvena's daughter's disappearance, though she is threatened not to, and Marvena continues to organize, in spite of the growing danger from the mine's owners and others in power who want to keep unions out.

During a time when women were only recently granted the right to vote, Lily and Marvena were both women in positions of power in their small communities, which was not appreciated by the men in charge. This riveting and complex story is based in part on truth: a woman named Maude Collins did become the first female sheriff in Ohio after her husband was murdered in the 1920's and was later elected to a second term. It's not clear how much of this story is based on that real-life one and how much is fiction, but it's an immersive novel that pulled me in and kept me listening. The audio book was especially good, with a narrator with a slight Midwest twang reading chapters that alternate between Lily's and Marvena's perspectives. The combination of mystery, history, and women finding their voice was engrossing. This was Jess Montgomery's debut novel, and I can't wait to see what she writes next!

336 pages, Minotaur Books
Macmillan Audio

Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher in return for an honest review. My review is my own opinion and is not influenced by my relationship with the publisher or author.

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Listen to a sample of the audio book.

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  1. I liked this one, too. The whole coal miners and unionization is such an interesting time in our history.

    1. That was interesting - I didn't really know anything about it. In fact, I don't know much at all about this period of history - between the two world wars.