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Review: The Widows, by Jess Montgomery
Minotaur, 2018. 317 pp. $27

When Lily Ross’s husband, Daniel, sheriff of Bronwyn County, Ohio, is shot to death in March 1925 under circumstances that beg for investigation, the widow undertakes to learn the truth. Though the bereaved spouse/lover detective is by now a trope, you couldn’t ask for a more compelling premise than Montgomery provides. Not only does Lily quickly learn that Daniel led a secret life with another woman — again, something we’ve heard before — but that woman, Marvena, is recently widowed herself and a union organizer. Bronwyn County is coal country, and the mine owners’ exploitative practices loom large — wages paid in scrip instead of cash, the company store, yellow-dog contracts, Pinkerton thugs; the whole nine yards.

“Keeping Warm,” a cartoon appearing in the Los Angeles Times in November 1919, reveals a common attitude of that time about mine labor disputes (courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

The miners’ cause lends potent substance and background to Daniel’s death and Lily’s investigation, not least because Daniel’s half-brother, Luther, owns the mines. Accordingly, the story involves many more deaths, beatings, and threats of violence, whether from mobs or individuals, authentic to labor history in the coalfields. Montgomery makes Daniel a violent man too, an erstwhile prizefighter capable of great rages. Lily’s least pleasant discoveries concern aspects of his past that show how he hid his violent side from her.

Much of this she learns from Marvena, who shares the narrative point of view. Though the story wouldn’t work without her, Marvena’s a weak link. She’s an admirable person who has suffered for her beliefs, but maybe that’s the problem — either she’s too earnest, or Montgomery was in creating her. Marvena plays two notes, over and over — whom can I trust? how can I keep the miners together when the union-busters have all the power? — and you can’t argue, but she needs more. Marvena’s emotional world feels too narrow, despite a passage or two about what her two daughters mean to her. What the miners endure is absolutely heartbreaking, and the way management maintains power at all costs reads like a combination of serfdom and three-card Monte. Nevertheless, to me, Marvena remains a symbol, an icon of resistance, rather than a complete person, and if she had a flaw other than the suspicious nature she has honestly earned, I’d believe her more readily.

Lily needs flaws as well. Men call her stubborn and foolhardy, but they would. Though she suffers from Daniel’s silences when he’s alive, she never regrets having married him, and though she briefly resents him for having died, that doesn’t stick. Why the whitewash? Even so, she comes across more fully than Marvena, particularly in passages like the following, a flashback to her courtship of Daniel — in a delightful switch, she’s the aggressor — when she spies on him training for a fight:

She took in every bit of him with her gaze — the bow of his head as if he worshiped at the swing of the bag, the pull and stretch of his muscles with each wrathful thrum, thrum, thrum of his fists against the bag. She felt in that beating rhythm his intention to keep going until mind and memory and muscle all melted to mere spoonfuls of sopping grayness.

Montgomery writes well, if unevenly— occasionally, her dialogue dumps information — but I wish she had more confidence in her skill. I want especially to see more emotional moments like the one quoted above, in which her protagonists’ inner lives expand to take in what they love, hate, or dream of. Instead, the author focuses on action-reaction moments, in which Lily or Marvena take in what they’ve learned or experienced and wrestle with it, often posing rhetorical questions, a device that easily wears thin. They’re strong women, and they have dreams, so why are they so tightly bound to what’s in front of them?

That approach may result because of the many, many plot twists, which, though they keep the reader guessing, hurt the narrative in the long run. It’s not that Montgomery ignores her characters’ inner journeys, exactly, but she seems less sure of herself with them, which leads me to suspect that she’s more comfortable twisting the story. But that’s not where real tension lies, and the plot turns sometimes seem improbable; more than a couple ooze melodrama. Likewise, had the villains occupied fuller characters than plain villainy, they would have felt truer to life.

All the same, I like The Widows, which features two female protagonists who don’t wait for men to rescue them, a feminist perspective that remains consistent. And as the grandson of a staunch union man, I applaud this narrative, a reminder of an ugly chapter in our nation’s history.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.