“The Widows kept me on the edge of my seat. Montgomery is a masterful storyteller.” Lee Martin, author of Pulitzer Prize-Finalist The Bright Forever
Kinship, Ohio, 1924: When Lily Ross learns that her husband, Daniel Ross, the town’s widely respected sheriff, is killed while transporting a prisoner, she is devastated and vows to avenge his death.
Hours after his funeral, a stranger appears at her door. Marvena Whitcomb, a coal miner’s widow, is unaware that Daniel has died, and begs to speak with him about her missing daughter.
From miles away but worlds apart, Lily and Marvena’s lives collide as they realize that Daniel was not the man that either of them believed him to beand that his murder is far more complex than either of them could have imagined.
Inspired by the true story of Ohio’s first female sheriff, this is a powerful debut about two women’s search for justice as they take on the corruption at the heart of their community.
"The Widows is a gripping, beautifully written novel about two women avenging the murder of the man they both loved."Hallie Ephron, New York Times bestselling author of You'll Never Know, Dear
"Jess Montgomery's gorgeous writing can be just as dark and terrifying as a subterranean cave when the candle is snuffed out, but her prose can just as easily lead you to the surface for a gasp of air and a glimpse of blinding, beautiful sunlight. This is a powerful novel: a tale of loss, greed, and violence, and the story of two powerful women who refuse to stand down."Wiley Cash, New York Times bestselling author of The Last Ballad, A Land More Kind than Home, and This Dark Road to Mercy
"[A] flinty, heartfelt mystery that sings of hawks and history, of coal mines and the urgent fight for social justice."Julia Keller, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Bone on Bone
About the Author
JESS MONTGOMERY is the Literary Life columnist for the Dayton Daily News and Executive Director of the renowned Antioch Writers’ Workshop in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Based on early chapters of The Widows, Jess was awarded an Ohio Arts Council individual artist’s grant for literary arts and the John E. Nance Writer-in-Residence at Thurber House in Columbus. She lives in her native state of Ohio.
Read an Excerpt
Six Months Later — March 25, 1925
Lily sweeps the jail cell for the next prisoner, set to arrive in a few hours. There's so much to do on this fine March day. Besides readying this cell, she needs to turn the garden soil, beat the rugs, and clean the sooty glass shade of the hanging coal-oil lamp in the dining room.
Her side stitches — sudden, hard. Lily gasps, forgetting her list of spring-cleaning chores. She steadies herself with the broom and swallows, fighting back a wave of nausea.
Queasiness has found her early this time around. At twenty-six, carrying a child is harder than when you're young! That's what Mama would say — if she knew. Lily has yet to share the news of this child with anyone other than Daniel.
"Hey, lady, gimme more coffee afore you keel over!"
Lily starts sweeping again, harder now, so dust and debris skitter past the tidy pile she's made in the empty cell and into the occupied one. The prisoner jumps back, giving Lily grim satisfaction. She wishes Daniel hadn't needed to leave this morning, but duty had called her husband, the sheriff, to fetch another prisoner from the farthest corner of Bronwyn County.
"You trying to ruin my breakfast?"
Usually, prisoners are respectful toward her. But not Harold Johnson. She knows his name because as jail mistress one of her duties is to keep a record of each prisoner who comes through the Bronwyn County jail. Her records are meticulous, to the point of pridefulness.
"I been held too long already. More'n twenty-four hours!"
Less than twelve hours. Every prisoner thinks he's held longer than is rightly fair.
Lily leans her broom by the cell door and expertly flips the straw mattress.
"And I — I need a doctor!" he yells before belching loudly.
Another wave of nausea hits Lily. She swallows hard again and steps toward the large quilt chest in the corner behind her desk, opens the chest, and pulls out a clean sheet, pillow, and blanket for the just-turned straw mattress. He wolf-whistles at her bent-over form and laughs.
Lily slaps the linens back into the chest. Then she steps to the cabinet against the back wall, opens the narrow drawer labeled "J," and pulls out Harold's card. She slams the drawer shut so hard that the cabinet shudders, and then sits down in her chair. She crosses her left leg over her right knee and pulls her skirt up just far enough to reveal the small derringer strapped to her ankle — a gun so compact that it's nicknamed a stocking pistol. A woman's gun, with only a single round, but sufficient, should a prisoner get out of hand. So far, she's never had to use it.
Lily reads from the card the notations made in her own neat, angular handwriting. "Says here, the sheriff brought you in yesterday for public disturbance at the Kinship Inn, where you busted up two of the more elegant chairs in the lobby and left the proprietor with a severely disjointed nose. Hit poor Mr. Williams hard enough to sprain your own wrist!"
Still, the prisoner sure isn't having any trouble wolfing down his biscuits and gravy, using the hand poking out of the sling she'd given him for his sprained wrist the night before. He had not been rude then, for Daniel had stood by watchfully.
Lily puts the card down on the table, picks up a pencil, and taps its point on the card. "Now, you can choose to either act respectably, or I can add harassment to your charges."
With a filthy fingertip of his good hand, Harold taps the silver, eagle-shaped Pinkerton National Detective Agency badge on his tattered lapel.
"See this here? This means you can't treat me like just any prisoner. You hafta show me respect, woman!" He tosses the plate, with his half-eaten breakfast, to the floor. The tin plate skitters, unbroken, toward the bars. "I want a new breakfast! And I wanna see Mr. Ross!"
He doesn't mean her husband, Bronwyn County Sheriff. He means Luther, Daniel's half brother and manager of Ross Mining, over in Rossville. Luther would undoubtedly take up for Harold, even egg him on. The very thought of Luther makes her want to shudder.
But Lily does not move. The door to the jailhouse is open, and from outside come the clucks of chickens in her yard — many housewives in town still keep backyard chickens and gardens, a money-saving effort left over from the Great War — and the sounds from Kinship's main street of foot traffic and horses and the occasional automobile driving by. She allows herself a moment to take in the comforting sounds of an ordinary morning, now well under way. When she speaks, it's so quietly that the prisoner has to lean toward the bars to hear.
"You have no authority. That badge means nothing here."
As sheriff, Daniel was supposed to handle any miners who caused property damage or committed other crimes on Ross Mining land — which encompassed all of Rossville. But the rest of Bronwyn County was also under the sheriff's jurisdiction. With only a part-time deputy, Daniel had grudgingly accepted Luther's decision to bring in hired police agents from the Pinkerton agency, as restlessness grew after the Widowmaker deaths.
Lily has overheard Daniel complain to Martin Weaver, his deputy, that the Pinkertons are desperate men who can't get work elsewhere either because of their own dark pasts or lack of skills or because they are immigrants no one wants to hire outside of mining.
"You know, I been watching you, and not just 'cause you're a pretty thing. You're fixing up that cell, but there's two cots in here. So why not just have your husband "— somehow, he turns the word lurid — "toss the new fella in with me? Easier on you. I figure either you got a woman prisoner coming, and that's mighty unlikely, or the prisoner ain't someone you want mixed in with me." He widens his grin, wolflike. "I reckon the sheriff got himself a coal miner."
With that, he spits a foul wad through the bars, into the cell Lily has just cleaned.
For a long moment, Lily stares at the man. He'd pieced together a good bit. For last night, after they'd locked up him up, they'd had a surprise visitor come during suppertime. Another Pinkerton man whom Daniel talked to in the parlor.
When that Pinkerton had gone she asked Daniel, What does he want with you?, and he muttered, Gotta fetch a new prisoner from Rossville. Usually Daniel just drove to Rossville a few times a week to collect any miners held for violations of the law, but when she said, Why did a Pinkerton come here? That's never happened before ... he'd uncharacteristically snapped, Enough! Then Daniel had been quiet through supper with Lily and their two young children, leaving Lily to muse how agitated he had seemed for the past week.
Now Harold lunges to the cell bars, as if he wants to squeeze through them and come for her. "You think mixing me and a dirty-dog coal miner up in one cell would be bad? Well then, you better tell your husband to start coming down harder on those miners. Everyone knows he harbors a soft spot for 'em since the Widowmaker."
Lily keeps her expression placid. She's learned, over the years, that silence invites the guilty and the nervous to talk too much. Sometimes that yields only gibberish. Sometimes it yields vital information.
"It's gonna be war." The glint in Harold's eyes turns from lusty to needful. He's world-weary, but she estimates he's younger than her, too young to have served in the Great War. Like too many who romanticize battle, he thinks it would be exciting.
Lily could tell him it would not be. Daniel doesn't speak about his time in the army. But even seven years later, he still occasionally calls out at night from some terror-filled war dream. As a good wife, she'd learned to calm him and then not speak of it in the brightness of morning.
"A real war," Harold says. "And then, rule of law won't matter. Those miners who resist, why, we'll put 'em down like rabid dogs."
Lily returns the prisoner's card to its proper place in the "J" drawer. Then she walks back to Harold's cell door. "Hand me the plate."
Instead, he reaches his good hand through the bars to grab for her. But Lily seizes his wrist before he can touch her breast and yanks him so hard into the bars that one side of his face smashes into the iron. He glares at her through his narrowed, bruised eye, like a walleye fish. He tries to jerk away, but Lily, stronger than her five-foot-three frame suggests, holds tight. He brings his sprained arm around to grasp a bar, but pain stops him.
Still, he gasps: "I'm telling Mr. Ross!"
She twists his wrist. He quiets, except for whimpering.
"Tell Mr. Ross anything you like. I'm only defending myself, as is my right," Lily says. "You and your kind will not bring war down upon my county. Sheriff Ross will see to that."
For a moment, he is a trapped, wounded animal waiting for its next opportunity to strike back. Lily had seen that, hunting with her daddy. Lily calculates: she will need to jump back and let go of his wrist at the same time. She counts to three and does so.
Harold stumbles backward, falls to the floor. He scrambles over to the tin plate and slings it at her through the bars, missing widely.
"When the sheriff returns, you will clean that up. And you'll scrub the other cell's floor."
He curses her as she lifts the key ring off the peg by the jailhouse door. Quickly, she steps out and then closes and locks the door, sliding the ring over her narrow arm like a bracelet.
Lily gives herself a moment to adjust to the brightness of this early spring morning. She gazes west, over the roof of the old carriage house that now shelters Daniel's automobile and her garden tools, past the outhouse and water well, over to the bell tower of the court building next to their home. Then she walks the few paces from the jail, an L-shaped attachment to the sheriff's residence, and opens the back door. It squeaks loudly behind Lily as she steps into the screened mudroom. Daniel has been promising for weeks now to take a look at that faulty hinge.
In the kitchen, as she thoroughly washes her hands with bar soap under the cold water at the pump sink, she tries to calm herself by refocusing on the tasks at hand: it is nearly time to rouse the children, get them washed up, dressed, and ready for the day. There's laundry; Jolene can tend Micah while Lily uses the wringer washer in the mudroom. Both children can help hang clothes and linens to dry on the line out back. But she'll read to them, too, one of her favorite activities with the children.
Yet as she dries her hands, she's still rattled, not so much from the distasteful encounter with the prisoner. Such occasional bouts are to be expected. She just can't shake his cruel glee at the prospect of a coal miners' uprising and the bloody battles that would surely follow.
Lily slips back out to the mudroom, pulling on an old sweater of Daniel's kept on a peg by the door; it may be spring bright, but the day still holds the chill of winter not quite past. She grabs a basket and eases the back door open to mute the hinge's squeak. She starts the small trek up the slope of their backyard, her focus drawn to slender jonquil stems and buds poking up by the jailhouse's stone foundation. Has her daughter seen them? She'd told six-year-old Jolene last fall that they'd never grow there and immediately regretted it when her little girl's face fell. Jolene had insisted on planting the bulbs anyway. Such faith.
The hens cluck and stir as Lily gathers eggs. A smile finds her lips, even as she fusses back at them, as the morning — before the nastiness with the prisoner — comes back, whole: the floor creaking as Daniel rose before dawn to prepare for his journey to fetch a prisoner. She had reached for him, pulling him to her. His hesitation, concern writ across his brow: Lily, he'd said, letting her name fall like a sigh; then the baby, and she'd smiled and shaken her head to show she found his concerns sweet but foolish. They had, after all, made love through all but the first of her other pregnancies.
So she'd unbuttoned his pants. He'd blushed. How she managed to make a man like him blush she never could figure, but it pleased her. They'd made love after all, reconciliation after the previous night's squabble, the past week's uncharacteristic tension. They've never been able to deny each other.
After, he'd smoothed back her hair, kissed her forehead. I'll be back by lunch, he'd said, and I'm hankering for buttermilk pie.
She'd laughed. She's the one who should have cravings, yet Daniel's been fussing for days for that pie. His favorite. But also his ploy to get her to eat more. Even a queasy stomach can handle buttermilk pie.
Now, still smiling at the memory, Lily glances into her basket. Six eggs. There, in the nesting box, a seventh! Enough for the children's breakfast and Daniel's buttermilk pie.
So Lily gently scoops up the seventh egg. She envisions this afternoon, how Daniel will proclaim this bounty of eggs a good sign, part of the lore he'd learned from his own mama. She'll tease him, tell him such things are old wives' nonsense, that likely she'd missed some eggs the morning before. He'll tease her back — such a modern woman — and she'll pout playfully until he moans appreciatively at the first bite of pie.
But as she latches the coop door, a man's hand falls heavily on her shoulder, and her daydream dissolves. Lily's right hand reflexively forms a firm fist: thumb outside, knuckles up, as Daniel has taught her. She spins around to see it's Elias.
Lily, relieved at not upsetting the basket of eggs, smiles as she always does at her husband's uncle, an uncle who is more like a father to Daniel. She is about to greet him when Elias says, "Daniel's been found."
Then she sees the daub smeared across the chest of Elias's gray overcoat, the smudge of blood on his cheek, sees the shake in his hand as it falls from her shoulder and returns to the brim of his hat. He pulls the hat up to block the stain on his chest. The hat is not big enough.
"I wanted to be the one to tell you. ..."
She looks from the spot rising like a blood moon above his hat's brim to Elias's face. In the sudden, stunted silence she hears the men — Martin, Daniel's main deputy, is speaking, and there's a quiver to his voice, and she hears another man grunt a reply — coming around the side of the house, past the jail, up the rise of the yard.
Only then do the stiff planes of Elias's face crack and wrench, as if this is what is too much: that he's failed to be the one to bring her the full news of Daniel's fate.
But he needn't say more. She knows. She knows just what Daniel's been found means. ... Daniel isn't lost; he knows every damned rut and route and turn and stream and hill and holler of the Appalachian Mountains in Bronwyn County, Ohio. He hasn't run off. He isn't ill.
Lily hears a smack, sees that her arms have fallen to her sides, her basket of eggs to the ground. She drops to her knees, tries to scoop the eggs back up. She digs at the goop, clawing so hard that her nails quickly fill with yolk and cold spring dirt.
"Lily, Lily, stop, please. ..." Elias's voice, as if from a great distance.
Then a loud squeak — the back door that Daniel had promised to fix.
"Mama?" Little Jolene's voice, piping up the rise from the back stoop like an echo of that back door hinge. Somehow as near as if Jolene whispers in her ear.
As Lily turns from the broken eggs, her eyes scrape past the carriage house and jail, her gaze seeming to take forever in its trek down to the back stoop and to their children — Jolene and Micah — standing there, still in nightgowns, no doubt awoken by that damned squeaking door and the men tromping around the front of the house.
Four-year-old Micah leans into his sister. Normally Jolene would push him away, annoyed, but now she pulls him to her. Jolene says again, cracking the word in half: "Ma-ma?"
Daniel's been found. ...
Lily stands, rubs her hands on her skirt, rushes down the hill to her children, reaching for them even as she runs.CHAPTER 2
Marvena wants to comfort the sobbing woman, cowering in a corner of the dark, dank bedroom, but she dares not move. She's pressing down with all of her slender weight on the slash in the dying man's gut, as if she can hold his innards together with just her hands.
"Lloyd, you stay with us now, you hear me?" Blood bubbles up from the miner's wound, around the heels of her hands, seeping into the cuffs of her dress.
Rowena, his wife, weeps loudly.
"Now listen, both a you! Nana will be here soon." Well, at least Marvena hopes she will. She'd sent her little girl off to fetch Rossville's midwife and healer woman. Surely the child had noted the urgency and not gotten distracted by something that caught her fancy — a peculiarly shaped rock, or a spring flower. "Nana will have her herbs; she'll find a way. ..."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Widows"
Copyright © 2018 Sharon Short.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Lily,
Chapter 2: Marvena,
Chapter 3: Lily,
Chapter 4: Marvena,
Chapter 5: Lily,
Chapter 6: Marvena,
Chapter 7: Lily,
Chapter 8: Marvena,
Chapter 9: Lily,
Chapter 10: Marvena,
Chapter 11: Lily,
Chapter 12: Marvena,
Chapter 13: Lily,
Chapter 14: Marvena,
Chapter 15: Lily,
Chapter 16: Marvena,
Chapter 17: Lily,
Chapter 18: Marvena,
Chapter 19: Lily,
Chapter 20: Marvena,
Chapter 21: Lily,
Chapter 22: Marvena,
Chapter 23: Lily,
Chapter 24: Marvena,
Chapter 25: Lily,
Chapter 26: Lily and Marvena,
Chapter 27: Marvena and Lily,
Chapter 28: Lily and Marvena,
Epilogue: Lily and Marvena,
About the Author,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Jess Montgomery has just released her debut novel, The Widows, the first book in her Kinship series. 1924. The Appalachian hills of Ohio - coal mining territory. Sheriff Daniel Ross is killed in the line of duty. By whom is not known. His wife Lily is approached to stand in as Sheriff until an election can be held. Marvena Whitcomb is a coal miner's widow and also has a connection with Daniel. It is only upon his death that they both realize Daniel was keeping secrets. There's much, much more to this story. The lead characters were so wonderfully portrayed and I was immediately drawn to both of them. Montgomery has taken inspiration for her characters from history. Maude Collins was the first female Sheriff in Ohio. Mary Harris Joneswas the 'most famous female labor activist of the nineteenth century'. Montgomery's depictions of the land, the times, the people and the issues are rich and full, providing a vivid backdrop for a multi layered tale. Who killed Daniel? Coal miners trying to unionize, the mining company trying to stop that at every turn. Will the two women work together? For their own purposes or for the good of the community? The Widows was a great read on so many levels - mystery, history, relationships and strong women. I'll be curious to see where Montgomery takes the next book.
Favorite Quote: Mama’s round face is so puckered with outrage that her mouth looks like the top of a drawstring purse. My Review: I am in awe of this author, this is her first novel and it was simply stellar! The storytelling was commanding, cunningly crafted, enthralling, emotive, highly descriptive, and smartly nuanced. I was instantly sucked into her vortex and heard a multitude of sounds, accents, and dialects in my head. I was right there with them, riding in their cars, feeling the dynamite blasts as well as their deep sorrows, and smelling their sweat and fear. The mystery was hopelessly intriguing and appeared an impossibly tangled knot that I feared was without hope for a solution. I was so deeply engrossed in their tale I experienced the conflict of simultaneous relief and grief upon completion. Jess Montgomery’s word voodoo packs a powerful punch and is dangerously hypnotic.
Story told by two different women, the chapters alternate from the two perspectives. The two don't know much about each other, but both loved the same man, and he was different with each woman. Personally I was glad to have it spelled out just what the relationship with each was. The beginning of the book introduces us to many different characters, a little confusing but clears up quickly as you get into the rhythm of the story. Lots of history from the late 1920s about coal mines, miners and union organizers. It's easy to picture the story, the author's descriptions flow easily and don't interfere in the telling. Good murder mystery, very strong women, great history lesson in a fictional town.
A gritty, uncompromising and emotional look at the Ohio coal mining industry during the 1920s, and the efforts to unionize the miners. The story centers around 2 women and one man...the sheriff, and what happens after his murder. Lily was Daniel's wife, she is determined to find out who killed him. After his death she is appointed sheriff. She doesn't know about Marvena until she shows up in town after his death. Daniel had promised to find out what happened to her daughter who's disappeared. Marvena is also trying to organize the miners to join the union. They need better, safer conditions, better pay and she wants to keep children from having to work in the mines. They must learn to trust each other in order to accomplish what needs to be done. I loved Lily and Marvena...both are strong but weary women fighting for their families and friends.
I've been thinking about how to best write about this book by first time author Jess Montgomery. First time author! Wow, Ms. Montgomery writes like an experienced novelist as she effectively creates a place, characters and narrative tension. She has written what I consider to be a truly excellent debut novel. The Widows are Lily and Marvena, each of whom has children, has lost a husband and is trying not to lose her way. Life in Bronwyn County, Ohio for them and those they love, following WWI is full of hardship. Coal is king and a harsh master. Poverty and company scrip rule many lives. In this world, Marvena and her common law husband John have worked to organize the miners. This is a freighted and difficult task given the strong arm tactics of the mine owners. Pinkertons are brought in to quell resistance. Other outsiders try to dominate illegal moonshine businesses. On the surface, Lily's life looks better. She is married to Sheriff Daniel Ross, a former boxer and half brother to the mine owner. However, early in the novel, Daniel is killed. The circumstances surrounding his death are a central mystery in the novel. Both Marvena and Lily have relationship history with Daniel. Each realizes that she did not fully know him. As they come to know one another, Lily and Marvena come to also know themselves. Peopled with many additional characters that come vividly to life, this novel is engaging, realistic and compelling. Put it on your TBR pile for January when it will be released. I recommend this one very highly. Many thanks to NetGalley, the author and St. Martin's Minotaur for this fantastic read!
The Widows by Jess Montgomery Kinship #1 Lapsang Souchong – not Jasmine Tea – One thought I had while reading this book. Now, my mother loved a smokey tea and...others no doubt love it too...not my favorite flavor but I do have to say this book grew on me as I continued to read. That thought happened at the beginning of the book and as I read I kept thinking that neither of the main characters were people I could really relate to and I wondered why. It wasn’t the era of the early 1900’s or the location in the Appalachian coal country or even the fact that the number of widows was huge within the area because...post war there would be widows. I think perhaps that Lily and Marvena took time to really know and didn’t seem the warmest women I have ever met in a book. As the story unfolded I saw a bit more of who they were and why they made the choices they did but even at the end of the story I didn’t feel I knew them well. Perhaps as this series continues the characters and their back stories and thoughts and reasoning will be exposed a bit at a time and I will come to know them better and warm to them, too. I did think about not finishing the book but in the end am glad I did finish it and can say that I am interested in finding out what happens in Kinship when book two comes out. This book deals with a great deal of loss and is filled with the darkness of a mining town with the oppression of miners in that period. There is more than one murder so a mystery to solve. There are evil men with agendas of their own. There is the slow unveiling of who Lily’s husband Daniel was besides being the Sheriff and her husband. This is the story of two women that may forge a friendship as the series continues and it is a story that though dark does have a bit of hope toward the end. Did I like the story? More at the end than in the beginning Would I read more in this series? Yes, to see where the author plans to go with the characters What did I like? That it made me think and wonder even though it was not an easy read Thank you to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press-Minotaur for the ARC – This is my honest review 3-4 Stars