The Assembly’s monthly literary column highlights all things books in the Old North State. Author Wiley Cash helms the newsletter, which includes older books with new relevance, new titles with timely appeal, reviews, author Q&As, and excerpts. You can sign up for the newsletter here.
This month’s book is De’Shawn Charles Winslow’s Decent People, published in January 2023 by Bloomsbury Publishing.
In the opening pages of De’Shawn Charles Winslow’s new novel Decent People, a recently retired southern expat named Josephine Wright leaves New York City and moves home to the segregated town of West Mills, North Carolina, in 1976.
She has returned to reconnect with the place of her birth—the place where prejudice caused her mother to flee north when Jo and her older brother were children—and to marry her sweetheart and fellow West Mills native Olympus Seymore and finally put down roots.
But after Seymore becomes a suspect in the triple homicide of his half-siblings, Wright sets out to clear her fiancé’s name by uncovering every dirty secret, familial entanglement, and simmering grudge in the last half century of the town’s history.
West Mills is based on the real town of South Mills, near Winslow’s native Elizabeth City. In the fictional town, the past is wielded like a weapon and suspicion cloaks every utterance between neighbors, friends, and enemies alike. There is an old saying that when you dig up the past all you get is dirty, and there is plenty of digging to do in Decent People. But readers will find much more than dirt. They will discover a town besieged by issues like conversion therapy, the rural/urban divide, drug addiction, and mental illness, all of which are both historically resonant and bitingly contemporary.
While Decent People is certainly a murder mystery with Wright playing the role of an amateur sleuth with a chip on her shoulder, at its core it is a study of rural life through the town’s Black and white citizens, who are separated by a canal that literally divides the community. Regardless of their race, it seems that everyone in the novel is connected to the murder of these three grown siblings in some way.
Victim Dr. Marian Harmon ran her pediatric clinic with the help of her obedient brother and sister, all of whom seem to be exemplars of Black success. They had money, and they owned the grand home where they all lived. While these markers of affluence could demand a certain amount of respect, the reader soon comes to understand that the family is actually feared, largely because they hold so many of the town’s secrets.
The novel focuses on Wright and three other main characters, each of whom carries the narrative at various points and whose entanglements with the Harmons means they might have a good reason to wish death upon Dr. Harmon and her siblings.
There’s Eunice Loving, who takes her gay, teenage son to Dr. Harmon to be “fixed,” with disastrous and scandalous consequences. There’s Ted Temple, a white man who owns the shopping center where Dr. Harmon’s clinic is housed and whose daughter, Savannah, disgraced the family years earlier by marrying a Black classmate and giving birth to two sons before her husband’s untimely death. And finally there’s Savannah herself, a secret client of the Harmons’ small-scale pill ring and whose two teenage sons were forced to use violent means to assist in an attempted conversion. Along with Seymore, whose frustration over a loan from his half-siblings resulted in a public disagreement, the three were all seen having angry confrontations with Dr. Harmon in the final days of her life.
With a series of surprising twists, Decent People proves that even in a town where everyone knows everyone else’s business there is still plenty of room for shocking revelations. These revelations are what swing the novel toward its final act, which reveals stunning secrets, unmasks the murderer, and gives the community an opportunity to heal.
The novel follows Winslow’s widely praised 2019 debut, In West Mills, and joins a long tradition of Black writers who have portrayed life in the rural south, from Zora Neale Hurston to Alice Walker and Richard Wright to Ernest J. Gaines. Winslow’s work is particularly resonant of the late North Carolina writer Randall Kenan. Both write about rural Black life in the Old North State, and specifically about the dual scourges of racism and homophobia—which could be seen as self-inflicted, soul-searing wounds in communities that are already struggling under a litany of other challenges.
While taking the community’s voice to the halls of power can solve many issues, Decent People shows that some are best confronted and resolved at home, around the kitchen table, with open hearts and minds.
Decent People is a propulsive novel with rich characters drawn from life in North Carolina, written by a man who knows his state well enough to portray both its struggles and its people’s enduring will to resolve them.
Wiley Cash is the New York Times bestselling author of four novels and the founder of This Is Working, an online creative community. He’s been a fellow at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, and he teaches fiction writing and literature at the University of North Carolina-Asheville. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, photographer Mallory Cash, and their daughters.