Winner of the 2019 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, In West Mills follows Azalea "Knot" Centre, who is determined to live life as she pleases. Let the people of West Mills say what they will; the neighbors' gossip won't keep Knot from what she loves best: cheap moonshine, nineteenth-century literature, and the company of men. And yet, Knot is starting to learn that her freedom comes at a high price. Knot turns to her neighbor, Otis Lee Loving, in search of some semblance of family and home. But while he’s busy trying to fix Knot’s life, Otis Lee finds himself powerless to repair the many troubles within his own family, as the long-buried secrets of his troubled past begin to come to light.
From the first page, Winslow establishes an uncanny authority and profound tone that belie the book’s debut status. The precision and charm of his language lure us in and soothe us ... He paints a community so tightknit and thorough it becomes easy to forget the people in it don’t exist ... Knot is as complex and endearing a protagonist as Zora Neale Hurston’s Janie. And Winslow is capable of retreating into the quiet of all of his characters’ minds and hearts and sharing the contents with us ... Much of the story is told through dialogue, rich and truthful conversations ... Like Dickens’s, Winslow’s characters are steeped in secrets, but here the reader knows most of them; the reader’s satisfaction doesn’t come from what will unfold, but from how it will.
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.
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 ... 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.