Residents of West Mills, North Carolina, joke that their town never changes. Yet there’s never a dull moment for the stubborn, loyal characters in De’Shawn Charles Winslow’s debut novel, In West Mills.
The novel opens in 1941 with a fight between main character Azalea “Knot” Centre and her man, Pratt. When Pratt enlists for the war, Knot’s neighbor Otis Lee looks after her and keeps her company. He chides her for her obsessive drinking and reading. In turn, she scolds him for his rift with a mutual friend, Valley. And so it goes, friends becoming family until the town includes three generations of fierce fighters and lovers.
Reminiscent of August Wilson’s 10-play cycle marking each decade in 20th-century African-American history, In West Mills telescopes four decades into a densely packed drama surrounding Knot, a woman full of passion and pathos, an object of both hate and love. Knot is nicknamed as a girl for balling up her little body around ceramic “whatnots” stolen from her mother. Other West Mills inhabitants’ nicknames include Pep, Breezy and Goldie, showing how these neighbors claim one another as their own. As the novel progresses, the story becomes less about Knot and more about how the whole town handles its woes, and the story’s central figure becomes a tightly wound web of lies, secrecy and forgiveness.
Characters deal with inflamed emotions, gender and race roles, sexual preferences, addiction and children born out of wedlock—the stuff of the soap operas Knot and friends watch every day on their new televisions. What distinguishes West Mills’ melodrama from episodic TV, however, is the real-life, unglamorous attitudes of ordinary people. Amid their squabbles, they work hard as farmers, cleaners, midwives, teachers and musicians. They eschew happy endings but stick with each other despite their differences.
In West Mills exemplifies the timeless adage that it takes a village to raise one another. This is a historical fiction triumph.