I first became interested in Southern Gothic literature years before I moved to the South. I discovered Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road (1932)and God’s Little Acre (1933) during my undergraduate studies at the now-defunct Franconia College, which was located in northern New Hampshire. Although I was living in the middle of Yankee country, I enjoyed reading Caldwell’s novels about life in the rural South. In many ways, these novels are all about the characters’ emotional connections to the land. Caldwell’s eccentric and flawed characters intrigued me. Since these characters live on the fringes of society, their experiences reveal sides of Southern culture that are often kept out of view. When I originally read these books, I hadn’t yet heard of the term Southern Gothic. However, I later learned that this term has come to be associated with Caldwell’s novels and other stories about eccentric (sometimes grotesque) characters who live in the South and who wrestle with the complexities of Southern culture and traditions.
I thought about Caldwell’s novels and the Southern Gothic tradition when I discovered Kevin Winchester recent debut novel, Sunflower Dog: Dancing the Flathead Shuffle. I see Kevin’s novel as belonging to this same tradition, but I wondered if Kevin would agree with me, so I sent him an email and asked him. In his response, he said, “Absolutely, I think Sunflower Dog is definitely Southern Gothic.”
Like the characters in Caldwell’s novels, the central characters in Sunflower Dog have deep ties to the land. Also, like Caldwell’s characters, Kevin’s eccentric characters exist on the fringes of society. In the case of Sunflower Dog, these characters live on the fringes of Charlotte. Kevin currently lives near Charlotte in the community of Waxhaw, and he earned his MFA in creative writing from Queens University in Charlotte. For more information about Kevin and his publications, please click on the following link: https://www.kevinwinchesterwriter.com
Kevin draws on his familiarity with the Charlotte region in creating his cast of quirky characters. These characters include a small-town entrepreneur, an aspiring reality TV star and her doting but tough-as-nails grandmother, a young couple who are expecting a child, a pair of inept weed growers, a college professor whose career is not going well, and, of course, a dog. These characters all get caught up in a messy real-estate deal that is both funny and poignant. I recently contacted Kevin and asked him for more information about these characters. Here is what he sent to me:
Sunflower Dog was released in April of 2020, but it is set in 2008/9 against the national backdrop of Obama’s election and the Great Recession, and the Charlotte region’s real estate boom and its ensuing population explosion. The characters in Sunflower Dog—all local “natives”—are trying to figure out how to navigate all the changes happening around them.
To anyone from the area, it quickly becomes obvious the book’s fictional Mason County represents Union County. I was born in the county but headed for bigger and brighter as soon as possible. When I first began thinking of moving back to Union County, I told my wife we should drive out to an area I always liked to see if any land or houses might be for sale. A couple of turns later I thought I was lost. The dirt road I wanted, the one I remembered from high school that featured Ghost Bridge, the site of bonfires and beers every Friday and Saturday night, was paved. Housing developments sprouted from pastureland, and when I threw my hand up at passing traffic—a Southern and especially Union County tradition—no one waved back. Charlotte, and all things Charlotte, had spilled across the County line. I didn’t know how I felt about that.
Neither do the characters in Sunflower Dog. Most of the characters are long-time residents. A few are multi-generational—as the saying goes: their tap root ran deep, especially the main character, Salvador Hinson, and one of his cohorts, Ethel, the crusty grandmother of the story. All are trying to redefine who they are and how they are to exist as their familiar world, a world filled with traditions and customs good and bad, connections to the land, a sense of the past—theirs and the regions, careens toward the future. They’re on the fringe, stuck between urban and rural, big city and red-dirt country.
Union County, like most counties surrounding Mecklenburg, or probably any urban area that is experiencing growth, is divided geographically in a way that reflects all of this. For instance, in Union County (and the book’s Mason County), Highway 601 north of Monroe and Highway 200 south of Monroe act as a demographic line of demarcation. West of those two highways, the Mecklenburg county side, is more affluent, crowded with two-story housing developments and traffic, abundant shopping and dining options. East of those two highways, the landscape is open farmland, trailers, mom and pop businesses, and a slower pace in general. What moves toward the center pushes something to the fringes.
There is a natural conflict in those fringes: the ancestral locals pitted against the newcomers. There are plenty of Southern Lit books that feature those conflicts. Sunflower Dog is more interested in the internal conflict this newness creates in those being pushed toward the fringes. Those folks have a choice, or choices, to make. What traditions do they hang on to? Which ones should they discard? Is there really a connection to The Land; a standard trope in Southern fiction? And as the area inevitably becomes more urban…and more urbane…what happens to the traditional, Southern Gothic characters? Not “characters” in the sense of fiction, but characters as people; those quirky, hard-headed, determined, proud, uniquely intelligent, often peculiar folks we Southerners have always celebrated. In short, those fringe characters have long enriched all that is the “Southern experience,” and they are an integral part of all generational Southerners. Those not from the South viewed, still view, those characters as humorous, as jokes even, and not without reason. In Sunflower Dog, I wanted that comical aspect to shine through, but I also believe there is something beautiful and necessary in those fringe characters. If…when…those characters disappear, the collective We will have lost something more than just our Southern-ness. I hoped to preserve some of that in Sunflower Dog.
As the publication of Kevin’s Sunflower Dog demonstrates, the Southern Gothic tradition is alive and well. Contemporary Charlotte, with its gleaming skyscrapers and international airport, might not seem like a conducive setting for a Southern Gothic novel. However, Kevin shows us that you don’t have to travel very far beyond Charlotte’s city limits to find a world that’s perfectly suited for a Southern Gothic story. As I see it, Sunflower Dog is set on the fringes of the city, but it is still part of Storied Charlotte.