Saturday, May 16, 2020

In West Mills - De'Shawn Charles Winslow

De’Shawn Charles Winslow’s In West Mills is not at all the kind of novel that would usually grab my attention – not even close. But back in the good old days, sometime during March 2020, on my very last visit to a brick and mortar bookstore before virus-hell suddenly broke out all around the world, I spotted a copy on a display table near the store’s front door. Looking now at the book’s front cover, I’m still not sure why I stopped to pick it up, but I’m grateful that I did because this 2019 debut novel has become one of my favorite reads of 2020.

The book’s main character is Azalea Knot Centre, a brand-new schoolteacher who has come to little West Mills, North Carolina, in the early 1940s to school the town’s black children in their separate, but hardly equal, schoolhouse. “Knot,” as she becomes known to the black community, is not a typical starry-eyed young teacher, however. She is most definitely her own woman, and she doesn’t care who knows it or resents her for being it. Oh, Knot enjoys teaching well enough, but her three great loves in life are really good moonshine liquor, men, and 19th century literature (especially Charles Dickens novels), pretty much in that order.

Obviously, two of her three main loves, especially when experienced together, have a tendency to get free-spirited women like Knot into a lot of trouble (hint: Great Expectations is not part of the problem). Knot’s lifestyle did not much lend itself to teaching school in the first place, so when the inevitable finally happens, and she finds herself pregnant, her days in the classroom are destined for an early end. Knot simply cannot see herself as wife-material, much less as someone qualified to raise a child, but she knows she will have to give birth to the baby because, “As scared as Knot was of being someone’s mother, she was more scared of dying on some old woman’s kitchen table, trying to avoid becoming someone’s mother.”   

Right now, marriage and motherhood may just be the last two things she wants, or needs, in her life:

            “Knowing that she wasn’t ready didn’t mean she liked not being ready. But it felt safe to her – the only kind of safe Knot felt all right with. Safe by not having to worry about hurting a child’s feelings, the way her mother had hurt hers. Safe by not becoming someone’s wife just to figure out, years later, that she didn’t want him. Safe to get a bit of joy from the moonshine – something that couldn’t hurt her or be hurt by her.”

De'Shawn Charles Winslow
But with a little help from her friends, especially neighbor Otis Lee Loving, Knot Centre creates a nice little life for herself in West Mills, North Carolina. As it turns out, in fact, this woman who spent most of her life living all alone, will have as great an impact on the lives of the citizens of West Mills as most anyone who ever lived there.

Bottom Line: In West Mills may be De’Shawn Charles Winslow’s debut novel, but it certainly doesn’t read much like an author’s first book. The novel spans the years 1941-1987, and it is great fun to watch its colorful cast of characters age and mature over the decades as West Mills itself evolves. There is a lot going on in this one, especially with the complicated relationships that develop between the main characters, but it would be unwise to risk inadvertently revealing a major spoiler or two by saying much more about the plot. This is one you need to experience for yourself in order to get the most out of it.    

10 comments:

  1. This sounds fascinating, and I doubt I would ever have heard of it if I hadn't seen it here. Thanks, Sam!

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    1. I totally stumbled upon this one, too. I sure miss shopping in brick and mortar bookstores so that this kind of thing can happen again.

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  2. I love when a book you don't expect to like surprises you like this. It's what I like to call bookish serendipity. :)

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    1. That kind of experience is one of my favorite things, Lark.. Wish it would happen more often than it does.

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  3. Oooh, this does sound good. I wouldn't have picked it up based on the cover, but I would have because of the premise. Thanks for bringing this one to my attention. I'll have to check and see if my library has it.

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    1. Let me know what you think of it, Susan, if you decide to read it. I really like this one because of the way that it's a novel about a black community and all the action is pretty much within that community itself. It shows how self-contained those towns and neighborhoods used to be, and it's all very positive. It makes a nice break from all those novels about white vs. black, racism, etc. Somehow, that makes it easier to see all the characters, both black and white, as real people instead of a bunch of stereotypes.

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  4. This is a book I hadn't heard of so I really enjoyed reading about it in your post, Sam. I like the sound of it so will keep an eye out when the libraries reopen.

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    1. I hope you can find it, Cath. The question of you finding it in your local library makes me wonder what percentage of U.S. books end up in the U.K. and vice versa. Pretty small percentage, I would bet.

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    2. Then you would bet wrong. LOL! We get a huge amount of your books and I've lost count of the obscure books I read about on people's blogs, think to myself, 'That'll never be available in our library system'... and lo and behold, it is. And I really like that.

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    3. That's good to hear, Cath. I hope we are reciprocating. I can usually find the British books I look for; for me it's more a problem of ever hearing about them in the first place unless they are written by a well-known author. Honestly, I think we get a higher percentage of British books here than we do Canadian books. (Maybe I'm wrong about that, too. LOL)

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