De’Shawn Charles Winslow’s debut novel begins with an arresting scene. Pratt Shepherd is in the middle of a fight with his free-spirited girlfriend in a small, coastal North Carolina town on the eve of World War 2. However, Azalea ‘Knot’ Centre, a sometime teacher at the local school for African-American children, is nobody’s possession. When Pratt threatens to leave over her drinking and throws her glass against the kitchen wall, Knot volunteers, “Need some help packin’?”
Pratt comes and goes. Knot has her ups and downs. Secrets are made, kept, and broken. And years pass in West Mills. But there’s a warm center to Knot Centre and her next-door neighbors who are appropriately named the Lovings. Otis Lee can’t help but show familial love to Knot, to the exasperation of his wife, Pep. Knot can’t reciprocate but knows her life is dependent on the compassion of others.
De’Shawn Winslow has a startling knack for dialogue and he brings these characters to life on an extremely small stage. Over the course of 257 pages and 50 years we get to see the quiet fruits of long love and faithfulness. There is some drama, but the tender moments are the most affecting.
Winslow follows in the footsteps of Jesmyn Ward in creating a book about African-American lives in a rural community where white characters are mostly off-stage, but present through the ongoing effects of racism and generational poverty. Winslow grew up in Elizabeth City, North Carolina and In West Mills reflects his memories of the nearby town of South Mills. I look forward to seeing where he takes his strong, honed voice next. I wished for something more ambitious in this novel, and I suspect his future work will build on this scant introduction.
I received a review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.