My work book club read for May, I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while. Set in the early 1920s in the Appalachian region of Ohio, The Widows is based on the true story of Ohio’s first woman Sheriff. Daniel Ross, the Sheriff of Kinship, Ohio, is shot while transporting a prisoner. His wife, Lily, is temporarily appointed to fill the vacancy, at least until a special election can be called. What no one counted on, however, was Lily using her new position to investigate Daniel’s death in an effort to bring his killer to justice.
That’s the marketing synopsis. But what this story is really about is worker’s rights – specifically the fight of coal miners in nearby Rossville (named for the Ross mines, owned and operated by Daniel’s half brother) to unionize. Our POV switches between Lily, and Marvena, the widow of a coal miner and organizer. Both Lily’s beloved father and Marvena’s husband died trying to rescue miners from a collapse in the mine locals have dubbed the Widowmaker. Marvena also seems to have some kind of relationship with Daniel, of which Lily is completely unaware. Or at least, unaware until Marvena shows up at the Ross house on the day of Daniel’s funeral. These two women end up working together to find the truth of what happened to Daniel, and to protect the miners as they work to unionize and secure some basic protections.
This book actually reminded me a lot of The Four Winds, though I would argue The Widows is a bit more serious (and a little less pulpy). I found the descriptions of coal mining life and Appalachian culture really interesting, especially since I tend to associate Appalachia more with Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Virginia. Women’s lives and women’s work play a huge part in the story; both Lily and Marvena are able to use people’s expectations about them to their advantage at key moments in the story. Daniel was probably the most compelling character, which is a bit too bad since he dies in the first 10 pages, and all we know about him is filtered through Lily’s and Marvena’s recollections and understandings. An interesting read, but probably not compelling enough to pick up the other three books in the series.