Book Review: The Hollows by Jess Montgomery
By Chris WolakJanuary 15, 2020
The Hollows by Jess Montgomery is the second book in the Kinship series, a powerful, big-hearted, and exquisitely written follow-up to her highly acclaimed debut, The Widows.
The Hollows is Jess Montgomery’s second book in the Kinship historical mystery series set in Southern Ohio. The first book in the series, The Widows, introduced readers to Lily Ross, who is appointed sheriff after her husband is killed in the line of duty. Lily is based on Ohio’s first female sheriff, Maude Collins, who was appointed to the position in 1925 after her husband was shot while arresting a man for speeding. The Widows is a gripping read centering on Lily’s struggle with the death of her husband, assuming the role of sheriff, and dealing with local coal mining problems.
Book two picks up a year later when Lily, like her real-life inspiration, has to run her first election campaign to keep her position as sheriff. Her competition is Perry Dyer, a man who believes a woman’s place is in the home. The mystery at the heart of The Hollows is infused with issues of race, gender, and mental health. Montgomery explores how they impact both individual lives and the larger community.
Many of the characters from The Widows are back in The Hollows. Characters that were minor in the first book now take a more prominent role, while those that were major now provide background support. That’s the beauty of having a series based around characters in a small community. Like Louise Penny’s Three Pines series, readers get to know different characters in each book and come to have a deeper understanding of scenes and relationships as the series develops. The Hollows is a strong standalone novel, however, so don’t feel like you have to wait to read The Widows first.
The action of The Hollows opens when Lily is called out to investigate the death of an elderly woman who had fallen from atop a tunnel onto an oncoming train. Or was she pushed? The deceased is dressed in only a nightgown with rags tied on her feet. Finding out who the old lady was and why she died the way she did is Lily’s first priority.
In the midst of this time-consuming investigation, Lily is also worrying about her election and struggling with pressure from her mother and others to maintain her role as a woman in town. She has to remind herself how to be acceptably feminine, which is not an easy task for someone who grew up a tomboy and now works a job that has always been a man’s role. She’s learned to play the “dumb little lady” when necessary to “get more information from men than they intend to give.” But as a woman sheriff in 1920s Appalachia, Lucy faces not only discrimination but outright dismissal. Some even question her sanity.
Lily is also grieving the loss of her husband and feeling guilty for enjoying her job as sheriff, a position she’d never have had without his death. She’s trying to stifle her pain, which makes her short-tempered as she works the investigation and tries to be an attentive mother, daughter, and friend.
One of her friends, Hildy Lee Cooper (a minor character in The Widows), is feeling neglected by Lily and jumps at the chance to help out with the new case. Hildy volunteers to draw a likeness of the dead woman. Her talent and compassion allow her to reconstruct the woman’s damaged face so that those who knew her might come forward after seeing the sketch in the newspaper. As the tension mounts, Hildy takes a huge personal risk to help with the case.
Hildy is also dealing with her own grief and has felt adrift for years. She feels locked in the trap of being the good girl, trying to please everyone. Both Lily and Hildy feel as if they’ve been “hollowed out” by their grief and circumstances. Throughout the novel, Montgomery deftly entwines her characters’ emotional states with the case at hand.
Since her husband’s death, Lily has found that the absences of ordinary, predictable sounds—Daniel shaving in the washroom, Daniel humming, Daniel sitting on the edge of their bed to pull on his boots and then clunking his feet on the floor—are more noticeable than the sounds themselves ever were.
Lily wraps her arms around her midriff, a sudden hollowness roiling her gut.
Perhaps it was like that for the villagers tonight. They were alarmed by the absence of the regular train whistle, the aural ghost of the expected discordant wail, and gathered outside to ask one another what must have happened.
On the other hand, there’s Marvena, a main character in The Widows who takes a more supporting but still important role in The Hollows. Marvena, too, is suffering a loss, but as the immediate trauma has faded for her, she’s made efforts to keep living with love and empathy. She is patient with Lily, and when the two women finally start talking about grief, Marvena offers some words of wisdom:
“Everyone’s different. Still, I can tell you that with Jurgis [her new love], I’ve found comfort … that lets me set aside the pain, now and again. You, though, you just keep hunkering down, waiting for the sorrow to stop, and I understand that. I do. But it’ll never stop, not entirely. You know that. All hunkering down does is give sorrow a way to burrow in, carve a hollow in your heart. Go too deep, and sorrow is all that will ever fill it.”
It’s not only the widows who feel or are hollow. The exploration of emotional hollowness, its origins and expressions, adds layers to this story. Montgomery has written another suspenseful mystery full of atmosphere and surprising historical details. The characters’ emotional struggles don’t overshadow the action but actually help to deepen the historical elements of the story while adding a palpable urgency to the mystery.