Book Series Binge: Introduction from The Widows by Jess Montgomery

Inspired by the true story of Ohio’s first female sheriff, Jess Montgomery’s The Widows is a powerful, lyrical debut about two women who take on murder and corruption at the heart of their community.

The Widows is the first book in the Kinship series—read on for Jess' introduction right here.

Kinship.

Most simply, Kinship is the name I assigned to the county seat at the heart of fictional Bronwyn County in which Lily Ross— inspired by Maude Collins, Ohio’s true first female county sheriff in 1925—investigates the murder of her husband.

But just as Kinship is the heart of the beautiful yet challenging Appalachian county that serves as the setting for The Widows, kinship is the thematic heart of my novel and of future novels in the series.

I came across Maude in researching the southeastern corner of Ohio for a quick trip to visit our daughter. At the time, I was sorrowful over a fracturing in the extended portion of my maternal family of origin. Perhaps that’s why the first photo I saw of Maude so fascinated me. Here was this young woman, who looked so tough yet so tender, who became sheriff after losing her husband in a brutal shooting. My writer’s imagination took over, and Maude morphed into Lily who, unlike Maude, has no idea at first as to why her sheriff husband has been murdered on a remote stretch of road.

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At first, my Lily was a lot like me, hurting and wishing for some form of retribution. Anger drove my initial drafts—cathartic, but not  particularly helpful for creating an engaging story.

Fortunately, as my focus in real life turned from my grief back to my community as a source of solace and healing, so too did the thematic underpinnings of The Widows. Community to me means family, close friends, fellow writers, the church where I worship, my hometown, and from there ripples out to include my country and our world.

And so Lily’s journey, just as my own, became motivated by more than a simple wish for justice, but by a deeper need to reconnect with, protect, and heal her community.

One of my core beliefs— and thus Lily’s, too—is that we’re all connected. It’s tempting, and all too easy, to think of a remote county in Appalachia in southeast Ohio in the mid-1920s as quaint and untouchable, almost Brigadoon-like, but as I delved into historical research for The Widows, it became abundantly clear that such a notion would be wrongheaded. Bronwyn County and its inhabitants were touched in the 1920s by ripples of recently passed events— the influenza pandemic, the Great War, anti- German immigrant hysteria, suffrage—and more recently, Prohibition and unionization struggles. These great sweeping forces—beyond the direct control of my characters—nevertheless reach into their lives in profoundly personal ways.

As Lily becomes sheriff and investigates her husband’s murder—and later, another crime—it’s not happenstance that she shares the pages with another narrator in The Widows— Marvena Whitcomb. My choice of dual point of view is embedded in the thematic underpinning of Lily’s stories—she must work in kinship, no matter how she is hurting personally, for the betterment of her community. For inevitably, as with her community, forces beyond her control reach down to profoundly, personally touch her and those closest to her.

We all live in kinship, for good or ill, whether we wish to or not. Ultimately, knowing and accepting this can stir courage and compassion in how we go forth in our communities. This hard-won realization provides the motivation that drives Lily as a citizen, mother, daughter, friend, neighbor, and sheriff.

—Jess Montgomery


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