Certain places have a tremendous power to influence people, informing their choices and inspiring their lives, past and present. For the lead characters in two remarkable novels from Jess Montgomery and Mesha Maren, the Appalachian Mountains hold sway.
In Montgomery’s The Widows, the coal mining industry of Rossville, Ohio, in 1925 serves as the ominous backdrop to the lives of Lily Ross and Marvena Whitcomb. The story opens with a catastrophic mining explosion of methane gas that kills Marvena’s husband, John, which is soon followed by the death of Lily’s husband, Sheriff Daniel Ross, at the hands of an escaped inmate.
While Marvena fights to unionize mine workers for safer conditions and better wages, Lily assumes the mantle of acting sheriff in order to track down and apprehend her husband’s killer. Unaware that Daniel has been killed, Marvena goes to his house to ask his help in finding her missing 16-year-old daughter, Eula. Lily promises to help in Marvena’s search, oblivious to the fact that Marvena sought out Daniel’s assistance because of their prior relationship. Standing in their respective ways is the coal company and its Pinkerton detectives, thugs hired as enforcers to keep the coal miners in line, even as local politicians and law enforcement officials look the other way.
Inspired by the real lives of Ohio’s first female sheriff, Maude Collins, and community organizer Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, The Widows is told in alternating chapters from the two women’s points of view. This is the first book published by author Sharon Short under the pseudonym Jess Montgomery, and her writing is brisk, yet it lingers long enough to indulge readers with beautiful prose along the way.
In Maren’s debut novel, Sugar Run, characters looking for a fresh start are also drawn to the Appalachian Mountains, specifically a tiny village in rural West Virginia, where fracking and drug running have all but replaced coal mining and moonshining.
The novel follows two eras in the life of Jodi McCarty, with the bulk of the story set in 2007 as she tries to acclimate to freedom after 18 years in prison for manslaughter. Guilt-ridden over the death of her former lover, Paula Dulett, Jodi is compelled to seek out and then look after Paula’s younger brother, Ricky, now grown but mentally handicapped as a result of a beating he took at the hands of his abusive father.
Along the way, Jodi meets Miranda Matheson, the young mother of three children, who has left her country music-star husband and his drug-addicted lifestyle. Jodi, perhaps yearning for what she once had with Paula and a chance at a do-over, brings Miranda and her boys home with her. But Jodi’s hopes for a fresh start are almost immediately dashed when she learns that the West Virginia property her grandmother left to her has been snatched up by a Florida investor. As Jodi struggles to find a job and resorts to the drug trade just to make ends meet, Miranda once again falls for her former husband.
An accomplished short story writer, Maren makes her debut count with emotionally charged prose and a sense of the yearning we all have for home.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Behind the Book feature by Jess Montgomery on The Widows.