The opening scene of De’Shawn Charles Winslow’s “In West Mills” sets the spirited tone of his debut novel.
The book kicks off with a fight between two lovers, Azalea Centre and Pratt Shepherd. Pratt has had enough of tolerating Azalea’s love affair with booze, and he’s tired of the rural North Carolina town that feels like a trap. Azalea, properly known as Knot, takes another gulp of her drink, draining it; Pratt throws the empty glass against the wall, packs up, and leaves.
Except that he doesn’t. Not just yet.
The story’s arc begins in this small African-American community in 1941 – though some of its seminal action has already occurred decades earlier – and comes to its heart-melting conclusion in 1987. Although this timespan covers an eventful period in US history, heaving with war, post-war growth, and the fight for Civil Rights, Winslow doesn’t limn that bigger picture: While he allows glimpses of the outside world, he keeps his primary sights firmly set on his bevy of characters as they hang out in each other’s kitchens, darken each other’s doorways, and frequent Miss Goldie’s Place, a juke joint housed in a barn.
Knot is the ostensible protagonist of the novel, but her fellow characters more than make their indelible mark.
When the book opens, Knot is the town’s schoolteacher – and a good one, too: “When Knot had first arrived in West Mills, there were some eight-year-olds who couldn’t write their names.” A big reader, Knot is a lifelong lover of Charles Dickens thanks to inheriting her father’s taste for words; she’s also a woman who likes her drink and enjoys lovers strictly on her own terms.
In West Mills she interacts with the aforementioned Pratt, who originally came to town to help out his sister, a victim of domestic violence; Milton Guppy, the ex-husband of the former schoolteacher who is convinced that Knot usurped his wife’s rightful place; Otis Lee and Pep (Penelope) Loving, Knot’s best friends and neighbors and their son, Breezy; Valor, better known as Valley, the town bartender, resident homosexual, and Knot’s favorite confidant; and irregular out-of-towners, eager to offer her a bit of loving respite from her personal doldrums.
Knot’s sense of humor rarely falters, tends to be dry-as-a-bone, and is unavoidably direct: “’Y’all got anything I can pour in this coffee?’” she asks Otis Lee and Pep during a morning visit. “’Something ’sides milk, I mean.’”
Her push-me-pull-you, stubborn-as-hell attitude, even with her closest friends, even with those whom she loves most deeply, reflects an early disposition that garnered Knot her nickname: “She was only a year old when her pa had given her the nickname. He had told her of how she would often reach up to one of Dinah’s whatnot shelves to get ahold of some small ceramic ornament. Whenever anyone else tried to get the ornament from her, she would hold it as tightly as she could with both of her small but fat hands. He had said that Knot would ball her little body up almost into a knot so that they couldn’t get Dinah’s ornament.”
She is the beating heart of Winslow’s book, her willful actions radiating outward, impacting others’ lives and ambitions, but the other characters have their time in the spotlight too. The book’s small asides tend to be the ones that give the book its immersive structure: the love of a kind-hearted man for his pet hen; the cutting cruelty of a cold mother; the far-off but nonetheless permanent presence of an older sister living in New York City, running a brothel, and passing for white.
And if Knot is the heart of Winslow’s book, her best buddy, Otis Lee, channels its soul. Steeped in a loving marriage, he is the one who holds things together, for himself and for others, even at the most trying of times: “He didn’t need Cedar and Coy to reply to know that life was something to marvel at. Life, as Rose and Ma Noni had always told him, was full of surprises – surprises of the good kind, the bad kind, and the kind that had a little of both.”
Winslow’s quietly glorious novel is dedicated “To the reader,” and it engages on a level that’s appropriately intimate. His circle of characters bluster and tussle with each other, and with life’s inescapable ironies, tragedies, and delights. Some get angry with each other, free in the knowledge that their friendship is illimitable; others fight over disagreements that never get resolved, holding on to those disputes as their single, strongest connection.
In this tiny, deeply interwoven community, friends are more like siblings, siblings compete for the same lovers, babies given up for adoption don’t land far from their birth home, and everyone has a stake in shared secrets – sometimes handed down, sometimes withheld – across generations.
IN WEST MILLS
By De'Shawn Charles Winslow
261 pp. $26Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic. Follow her on Twitter @daneetsteffens.