De’Shawn Charles Winslow’s transcendent debut novel In West Mills does not lack for affirming reviews and well-earned accolades. First released in June 2019 and more recently reissued as a new-in-paperback edition, Winslow’s novel has already been named winner of the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize and a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice, in addition to appearing often on Best of… lists, including those of Time, USA Today, Entertainment Weekly, Southern Living, Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, Essence, and the Los Angeles Times. The critical attention is well deserved.
Unfolding between the 1940s and 1980s in the hardscrabble hamlet of West Mills, North Carolina, where Black and white communities are separated by a canal and so much else, Winslow’s intimate, dialogue-driven novel is evocative of August Wilson’s Century Cycle, the ten plays Wilson set in the Pittsburgh Hills neighborhood of his upbringing as a lens through which to explore the American experience decade by decade. Winslow is likewise invested in the study of changes—some minor, others upending—in the lives of his memorable cast over time as set against the unfolding backdrop of the larger American drama.
While defining and challenging the bonds of a small community occupy much of Winslow’s narrative, the heart of the novel is an antihero outsider — the free-spirited, well-read, and sexually liberated Azalea “Knot” Centre, so nicknamed for the fist-like ball she would roll herself into as a child to project her small treasures from those who might challenge her possession of them. Sometimes teacher, sometimes housecleaner, Knot defies societal conventions with her love of drink and men and independence, which manifest in two unwanted pregnancies and being ostracized by her family. Knot dares others — including Winslow’s readers — not to love her, and yet her fiery spirit and dogged sense of self-determination inspire adoration nonetheless. With Knot, Winslow has gifted American literature an unforgettably original character, and we are better off for having shared her challenging company.
The counterweight to Knot’s isolating and sometimes self-destructive nature is Otis Lee Loving, a problem-solving, protective family man with a fractured hero complex stemming from a failed attempt to rescue a family member from the consequences of her own choices. A big-hearted would-be redeemer, Otis Lee has a capacity to see the untapped potential in others, and he doesn’t give up on Knot, even as she is on the cusp of giving up on herself.
“You don’t want to be caught up in other folks’ lies and secrets. Ain’t a good feelin’ to keep stuff in ya,” warns Rose, Otis Lee’s mother (or is she?). As the community of West Mills undertakes the rearing of Fran and Eunice, the two daughters Knot gives up to other families, the truth of their lineage does not stay secret for long. In the sisters’ rivalrous affections for Otis Lee’s son Breezy, fates and families become even more intertwined. But ultimately it is the long-held secret of Otis Lee’s parentage, a truth revealed to Knot, that transforms the destinies of outcasts and affirms the redemptive power of love.
In his instructive and confessional essay “Why I Write,” the late Pat Conroy challenged writers to create fictional worlds “so fully developed, so richly contained in the oneness of their own universe, that…I will never want to leave.” De’Shawn Charles Winslow has given us such a world in his vision of West Mills—a world notably dedicated “to the reader” in which Black stories matter and we cannot help but wish we would linger, listen, and learn a while longer.
In West Mills
By De’Shawn Charles Winslow
Published June 4, 2020