Jess Montgomery: The Stills

This is the third book in the “kinship” series, set on the outer edges of 1920’s Ohio (Chillicothe is the big city), and each book centers itself on a different woman, though the central character is always Sherriff Lily Ross.  Lily became Sherriff after the murder of her sheriff husband and the first book was her story, as well as the story of labor organizer Marvena, now one of Lily’s best friends.  The second novel was about her friend, schoolteacher Hildy, and this book follows the story of Fiona, who is married to the series bad guy, George Vogel.

George is a big time bootlegger out of Cincinnati, and he strong arms his wife into convincing her aunt to sell her her farm, so he can then use it as a front for his operation.  Fiona is playing a longer game, though.  She despises her husband and thinks getting the property in her name will give her some leverage.  While this is very much a novel about prohibition and its effects on small town life – it’s also a novel about families.

In this sphere, Montgomery excels.  She’s a dazzling portraitist, illuminating the lives of her characters and bringing their joys and sorrows to life.  Lily’s struggles in this novel are to move on romantically, and to enforce the law even when it involves her friends. As she does not always agree with the prohibition laws, it makes for an interesting background.  It’s a wonderful piece of complex plotting, but it’s also a wonderful piece of complex characterization.

Montgomery also looks at the ways health was addressed in the 20’s – one of the children in the novel suffers from asthma, and the doctor’s prescription is asthma cigarettes (an actual “cure”). Another is discovered to be suffering from the “sugar” – i.e. diabetes, which, if the parents were poor, was almost a death sentence. The hard lives of these families are almost unfathomable.  The grace and strength the characters in the novel possess to deal with their challenges provides inspiration.

What I found most moving in this particular book was Lily’s struggle with what she truly believes.  It’s illustrated in almost every conversation she has.  The other central tentpole of this book was Fiona, and her realization that she could be in charge of her own destiny, as she plots an escape as well as a punishment for her husband.  The tension arises when the plans she has in place are almost more than matched by her husband’s brutality and smarts.

These books are a rich, dense read, full of character, setting, historical detail and just plain life.  Navigating life is the true journey of all the books so far, and for Lily and Marvena and in this novel, Fiona, that navigation provides the drama and the interest.  The effects of prohibition on this small town are devastating in so many ways, and it’s Lily’s job to navigate through them.  This is another stunning read from a supremely gifted writer.