In West Mills
- By De’Shawn Charles Winslow
- Bloomsbury Publishing
- 272 pp.
- Reviewed by Bob Duffy
- July 19, 2020
This debut brings rural American culture into vibrant, emotion-grabbing focus.
De’Shawn Charles Winslow’s debut novel reminds us that a story doesn’t have to be big and brassy to be uplifting. Set mostly in mid-20th-century North Carolina, In West Mills is lovingly atmospheric, carrying us off to a tiny fleck on the map, and one that’s exotically unfamiliar to many readers.
In the mind’s eye, Winslow’s West Mills, all African American, is a cluster of weather-worn houses, chicken coops, and a livestock pen or two bunched around a dirt road. The road leads, a way or so on, to a general store, also black-owned.
Today, you can find the remnants of such communities folded into fields of corn and beans, or groves of pinewoods, set back from older byways throughout the rural South, the legacy of the Civil War and its aftermath. One such hamlet — except for brief excursions by a character or two into the more frenetic world to the north — is the landscape of Winslow’s spare and unpretentious tale.
In West Mills shines an admiring spotlight on these distinctively American places, speaking with unadorned eloquence to the unvoiced feelings, impulses, and loyalties that bind the town’s residents. For readers both in and beyond the inherited blood-grip of these bonds, the author brings this world alive with blade-sharp fidelity. The sense of the real — and the living undercurrents of rooted kinship — inhabits every page.
The novel follows the life of Miss Azalea Centre, known to the locals as “Knot,” a stranger come to town, at first, to teach in its school. Knot, a habitual reader partial to Charles Dickens, has been groomed for literacy by her rural dentist father. She has a casual fondness for strong drink, too, and for companionable men who happen along at Miss Goldie’s place, the town’s rough-hewn juke joint.
We follow Knot from 1941 to 1987. Irascible and standoffish, with a withering gift for sarcasm, she stubbornly holds tight to the armor of the outsider. She seems to view herself as immune to the everyday embrace of other folks, except for two open-hearted friends: neighbor Otis Lee, upright and loyal, and Valley, a gay man who is generally accepted in town but still looking to escape.
In her 20s, Knot covertly gives birth to two daughters a year or so apart. Through Otis Lee and his wife, Pep, she sends them off for adoption by two relatively prosperous couples in the community. Knot arms herself against the loss with a naïve certainty that her secret will never come out, either to the townspeople or to the girls themselves.
Predictably, her assumptions are upturned years later with touching resonance as the author wryly weaves a familiar Dickensian irony or two into the tapestry of Knot’s small world.
Throughout this exceptional novel, Winslow captures the cadences and casual elisions of West Mills’ language. He depicts the town’s essentials with a lean authenticity and vibrant empathy in rhythms subtly calibrated for both eye and ear.
Here’s Knot in early labor, her first daughter about to be born:
“Dull pains forced Knot to pace the two rooms of the little house. A shot of the clear elixir only helped her a bit. Knot, being as no-nonsense as she was, knew she had a long day (or longer) ahead of her — a long day of pain. She would not allow herself to be fooled into believing otherwise. She had seen her two older sisters, Mary and Iris, giving birth. They had cursed and screamed as though Satan were standing next to their beds. The rooms had smelled as though someone were cleaning fresh game…”
This is an earthbound novel brimming with grit and sincerity, a spare, elegiac portrait of an American subculture that — in its rural expression, at least — will likely soon fade away.
[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2019.]
Bob Duffy is a Maryland author and reviewer.