Elizabeth City native De’Shawn Charles Winslow’s debut novel, “In West Mills” might be the blackest novel set in North Carolina this year, maybe ever.
This book is all about African Americans living and struggling in eastern North Carolina from about 1940 to 1987. There are no major white characters and no focus on racism and Jim Crow. There is almost nothing about racial conflict or the civil rights struggle. Putting these themes aside, Winslow shows his characters dealing with universal challenges that people of all races confront as they deal with the human situation.
West Mills is a fictional small town in eastern North Carolina, somewhere between Elizabeth City, where the author grew up, and Ahoskie where the main character of the novel was born and reared.
That main character, Azalea Centre, or Knot, as she is called by everyone, has moved to West Mills from Ahoskie, where her father is a dentist and a bulwark of the local church. Knot, however, wants to get away from her family and make her own way.
She finds a teaching job in West Mills. Knot loves 19th century English literature. That sounds good for a teacher, but she also loves cheap moonshine and bedding a variety of men. One of them, Pratt Shephard, wants to marry her. But after a session of enthusiastic lovemaking, she tosses him out of her life. He signs up to fight in the looming World War II.
Soon after Pratt leaves, Knot learns she is pregnant. She does not want to end the pregnancy, but wants nothing to do with the child after its birth. To the rescue comes a dear friend, Otis Lee Loving, and his wife, Penelope or “Pep.” They find a local couple to adopt Knot’s daughter. All this is done in secret and only a few people in the community know that Frances, daughter of Phillip and Lady Waters, is really Knot’s birth child.
Shortly after she recovers from the first delivery, Knot becomes pregnant again. Otis Lee comes to the rescue once more. He finds a place for the new baby with local storeowners, Brock and Ayra Manning. They name the baby Eunice.
When they grow up, Frances and Eunice, not knowing about their common origin, come to despise each other and fight for the attention of the same man.
On this situation, Winslow builds a series of confrontations and complications that challenge the comfortable order of the West Mills community.
Meanwhile, as time passes, the community seems immune to the racial conflicts in other parts of the state. In one of the book’s few mentions of racial conflict, Otis Lee hears stories in 1960 about “the young colored people in Greensboro who had organized a sit-in a couple of months earlier” and pronounced it a terrible thing. Winslow writes,
“Greensboro hadn’t come to them yet. And Otis Lee hoped things would get better so that it wouldn’t have to.”
Otis Lee is not only Knot’s loyal friend and rescuer. He becomes a major character. In a flashback to prohibition days he travels to New York City to rescue an older sister who is trying to pass for white. That effort fails, but his relationship with that woman provides a poignant thread that carries the book to one of its surprising endings.
“In West Mills” will not be released until June 4, but it is gathering early praise that indicates it could be a blockbuster. Adah Fitzgerald of Main Street Books in Davidson writes, “Winslow’s characters are rich and deeply developed. His dialogue feels like part of the landscape.”
Colin Sneed of Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill says, “Winslow loves and respects and understands his characters and it comes through on every page.”
I agree with them.