Jess Montgomery takes readers into Appalachian history with her new novel, The Widows. But the characters behind this tale are more than fascinating—to Montgomery, they are healing.
A few months after our youngest child went off to college, I was at loose ends, partly from empty-nest syndrome but also because for months I’d been unmoored from any clear direction as a writer—a situation exacerbated if not triggered by a difficult situation in my family of origin on my mother’s side. With my mother’s passing, the situation was over but not resolved, at least not in my heart and not with a sense of peace.
So I was happy to distract myself by researching places to visit near Ohio University, situated in Athens County in the foothills of Appalachia, for our daughter’s birthday. We sent our children to college without automobiles, and she was, I knew, also at loose ends—in her case, for a chance to get out of town and hike. She was, after all, an Outdoor Recreation and Education major.
I started poking around on the internet with mundane search terms such as “places to visit near Athens, Ohio,” or “hiking in southeastern Ohio.” A tourism page popped up for Vinton County, which abuts Athens County to the southwest. And on that page was a celebration of a woman the county proclaimed as their most famous resident: Maude Collins, the state’s first female sheriff, in 1925. (The next female sheriff in the state, according to the website, was elected in 1976.)
I was captivated by the image of Maude: young, feminine, somber, strong, beautiful. Modestly and properly dressed in a jacket and ruffled blouse and sensible brimmed hat—clothes that don’t fit the clichéd sequined and feathered flapper image of 1920s women.
But there was something more about her expression—sorrow. A call to duty to go on, as if there’s no other choice. Maude’s sheriff husband, Fletcher, with whom she had five children and for whom she worked as jail matron, was killed in the line of duty while arresting a man for speeding. The story goes that after the funeral, Maude was packing up to head home to her parents in West Virginia when the county commissioners came to her door, asked, “Where you goin’, Maude?” and appointed her to fulfill her husband’s post.
In 1926, she was fully elected in her own right—in a landslide victory. She even gained a bit of national fame after solving a murder that was written up in Master Detective magazine.
But I was struck by more than fascination with a young woman in a law enforcement role that even today is unusual. I wondered what Maude might say to me about my own familial losses and sorrow.
I have no way to know, of course.
But inspired by Maude, my imagination offered up Lily Ross, a wholly crafted character in her own right and the protagonist of The Widows, in which her sheriff husband Daniel is murdered—in this case, by an unknown culprit.
I thought maybe, just maybe, writing about a woman working as a sheriff in a time when it was almost unheard of for women to operate outside the bounds of hearth and home, a woman dealing with complex grief and loss, would remoor me to a writing direction. A direction that might lead not only to a good story but also personal peace.
As the story emerged in my imagination, so did another character—Marvena Whitcomb, a longtime friend of Daniel’s, who has lost her common-law husband in a mining accident and who now works as a unionizer. Marvena becomes a surprising ally for Lily, and together the women work to uncover the identity and motivations of Daniel’s murderer.
Shaping both women are forces beyond their control—women’s rights, unionization, prohibition, coal mining. As well, both are formed, in part, by the hills and hollers, customs and attitudes of Appalachia.
I, too, am a child of Appalachia—both sides of my family of origin go as far back as anyone can trace in Eastern Kentucky. Though I grew up in a part of Ohio close to but geographically outside of Appalachia, the dynamics of growing up in an Appalachian family shaped me far more than actual location of birth.
And as I drew deeply from family lore, music, attitudes, recipes, music and language as threads that wove the backdrop of Lily and Marvena’s story, I found myself slowly starting to, if not fully heal, at least reach emotional resolution. More importantly, as Lily and Marvena uncover the truth of Daniel’s death, they find solace in relationships, friendships and community. Ultimately, I did, too.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a review of The Widows.