by Jess Montgomery
Jess Montgomery showcases her skills as a storyteller in The Hollows: a powerful follow-up to her highly acclaimed debut. In this original piece, Montgomery discusses the history that both shocked and inspired her while writing The Hollows.
One of the best benefits of writing historical fiction is the surprising facts I discovered while researching. Well, surprising, at least to me.
Sometimes that means learning of uplifting events.
But sometimes, it means learning of painful aspects of history.
The Hollows was initially inspired by two real-life settings that would have been well-known in Appalachian Ohio in 1926—the Moonville Tunnel and the Athens Asylum for the Insane (both are re-named in my novel).
However, I also like to ground specific events of my fiction in real-life events that would have been sweeping across the United States. So I started digging into issues and events of 1926 America.
Of course, I already knew of the infamous Ku Klux Klan (KKK) white supremacist hate group. And I knew that the group first emerged right after the Civil War. It declined a few years later, but then re-emerged again in 1915, spurred by the silent film “Birth of a Nation,” which glorified the first Klan movement. Sadly, by the 1920s, the Klan had re-flourished, not just in the South, but in the Midwest and West.
But when I came across the WKKK—the Women’s Ku Klux Klan—which reached its apex in the 1920s, I admit that I was shocked. This was not an organization of women supporting their husbands in the KKK by, say, making sandwiches and sewing hoods. Though some members of the WKKK were married to men in the KKK, many were not. In fact, there are reports of divorce as a result of men not agreeing with their wives’ WKKK involvement.
This was its own group. I think that’s important enough to repeat: the Women’s Ku Klux Klan was its own group, by and for white, Protestant, U.S.-born women—a white supremacist group that adamantly denied the equality of all other races, religions and of immigrants. What’s more, while most women who had lobbied for the right to vote did not hold this view, WKKK membership included many suffragettes, as well as women who had also been active in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in support of Prohibition. And the leader who had a significant hand in creating the WKKK? Daisy Douglas Barr—a female Quaker minister from Indiana.
Further, this was not a small, regional organization. At its peak, the WKKK had chapters in every state.
Once I’d learned all this, I spent several days in shock, repeatedly turning this piece of history over in my mind. Here I am, I thought, writing novels centered around my protagonist Lily Ross, a strong woman who quietly yet firmly presses against the strictures of her time to serve as a county sheriff—a character inspired, no less, by Ohio’s true first female sheriff
Now, that’s uplifting, right?
A small part of me wanted to take the easy way out and ignore this aspect of 1920s history. Certainly, I could write another novel about Lily Ross, without bringing the WKKK into the plot.
But then I thought about the settings that initially inspired the premise of The Hollows. The spooky, allegedly haunted Moonville Tunnel setting.
Aren’t we all haunted, figuratively, by personal history? By cultural and national history? When does ignoring such history ever help us overcome the haunts? Answer—it doesn’t. And pretending that women didn’t, and don’t, have a role in white supremacist movements seemed glib at best, and like being-part-of-the-problem, at worst.
Then I thought about that insane asylum setting.
And I wondered—what’s more insane than espousing a belief that all humans aren’t created equal? Well—nothing—though denying that some people did, and do, believe thusly is a close second, if not a tie.
After that, a still quiet voice in my head whispered to me: if you’re going to fully portray women of the 1920s, aside from the popular image of flapper girls, then you can’t ignore what you’ve learned. Being female doesn’t provide a pass for holding abhorrent views.
That’s when I knew I’d need to weave the existence of the WKKK into the next novel in my Kinship Historical Mystery series.
I came across this piece of history and started writing The Hollows in 2018. I could not have foreseen that in May 2019, when I would be working on the novel’s edits, the KKK would stage an appearance in my hometown of Dayton, Ohio. In the tense weeks leading up to the KKK’s appearance by our county courthouse, I found it beyond surreal to be working on my novel, set in 1926, re-visiting the scenes I’d written incorporating the WKKK.
But here’s the wonderful thing that happened. On May 25, 2019, nine members of the KKK from Indiana showed up to stage their appearance.
And between 500-600 people from all walks of life—including a local Quaker assembly—showed up to counter protest.
In the end, the nine skulked away, still in their masks. No one was hurt in the counter protest.
My hometown’s overwhelming show of choosing love and inclusion over hate and bigotry was not only a relief. It gave me hope.
And though The Hollows incorporates this aspect of history, I believe it ends on an uplifting note as well—the belief that we can fight against the forces of bigotry.
“A Ku Klux Quaker?”, Stephen J. Taylor, Historic Indianapolis.com, September 28, 2015, https://historicindianapolis.com/a-ku-klux-quaker/
“Daisy Douglas Barr: From Quaker to Klan ‘Kluckeress’”, by Dwight W. Hoover, Indiana Magazine of History, Vol. 87, No. 2, June 1991, pp. 171-195
“Montana Women of the Ku Klux Klan,” http://montanawomenshistory.org/tag/wkkk/
“Women of the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s,” by Kathleen M. Blee, University of California Press, July 1992.
Jess Montgomery is the Literary Life columnist for the Dayton Daily News and former Executive Director of the renowned Antioch Writers’ Workshop in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Based on early chapters of The Hollows, Jess was awarded an Ohio Arts Council individual artist’s grant for literary arts and the John E. Nance Writer-in-Residence at Thurber House in Columbus. She lives in her native state of Ohio.