Minrose Gwin
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Minrose GwinThe Accidentals by Minrose Gwin

Release date: August 13, 2019

An interview with Minrose Gwin from the French Quarter Journal: The Flight of Time
Reviews and Endorsements for The Accidentals
Press Release
How I Came to Write The Accidentals

The Accidentals is the 2020 recipient of the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Fiction

Reviews and Endorsements for The Accidentals

“An important story about women's reproductive rights and the consequences of limited choices, the novel will transport readers to the rural Mississippi of a bygone era. The prose is teeming with beautifully vivid portraits of local birds and vegetation as well as evocative descriptions of contemporary foods, homemade liquor, and weekday dinners. Told from the perspectives of multiple characters . . . , the story offers unique and insightful perspectives on family, race, forgiveness, and personal agency. An artfully crafted tale that explores how restrictions on women's choices impacted female relationships in mid-20th-century America.”
Kirkus Review

“This is a novel that has everything: history and memory, unhappy marriages and sibling relationships, unjust imprisonment and diseases that seem implacable, resignation to death and miraculous recovery, Coq Au Vin made with moonshine and lard, the extraordinary experience of voting for a Black man who actually becomes the nation’s president. Yet there is neither clutter nor a sense of gratuitous inclusion. The novel’s prose reads like poetry; I was propelled by the beauty of the language and the force of what lies beneath. … Read this book, savor it, revel in what it has to offer.”
Women’s Review of Books

“Evocatively depicting the small town of Opelika, Miss., in 1957, Gwin (Promise) tells the heart-rending story of a mother feeling trapped in her life, whose death throws her family into turmoil. A satisfying fable of errors and consequences in a tumultuous era.”
 —Publishers Weekly

 “In The Accidentals, Minrose Gwin tenderly recounts the lives of two sisters shattered by the shocking loss of their mother. The unique voices of outsiders enrich their story, and Gwin pulls together the threads of all characters’ lives into an elegant and surprising tapestry. I’m still thinking about this rich, exquisitely crafted story.”
—Diane Chamberlain, New York Times bestselling author of The Dream Daughter

The Accidentals is a major work by someone whose earlier novels already marked her as one of this generation’s great novelists. Like migratory birds who have flown off-course and are therefore termed “accidentals,” its characters’ lives unfold, each claiming his or her space as well as intersecting with each other. Their lives are finely-crafted and hold unexpected surprises. And it is not only character and plot that make this book so readable; the writing is pure poetry. Gwin has done it again!”
—Margaret Randall,author of Time’s Language: Selected Poems 1959-2018

“This is the story of a family, but mostly, it’s the epic tale of two sisters, and, in the end, we are left with sublime memories of empty sparrow nests, chicken “coke awe vine,” and reticulating giraffes. A stunning book you will want to read and re-read.”
—Margaret McMullan, bestselling author of Where the Angels Lived

“If Eudora Welty channeled Charles Dickens she’d have written this novel about orphans and strays and the accidental ways they lose and find each other. It’s a happy, sad, sweet page-turner, a great book.”
—Debra Monroe, author of On the Outskirts of Normal

The Accidentals may be Minrose Gwin’s best yet. A family saga set in the black-and-white South of a generation ago, every page of this gripping drama shines with unexpected flashes of beauty and brilliance. A gorgeous book.”
—George Bishop,author of The Night of the Comet

The Accidentals is a whirlwind of a book, spanning sixty years of American history as experienced by one southern family. Regardless of your attitudes on abortion, civil rights, and the space race, this novel will lift you out of your comfort zone before shaking you out of your complacency. Urgent reading for our times.”
—Sharon Oard Warner, author of Sophie’s House of Cards

William Morrow/HarperCollins Press Release on The Accidentals

Following the death of their mother from a botched backwoods abortion, the McAlister daughters have to cope with the ripple effect of this tragedy as they come of age in 1950s Mississippi and then grow up to face their own impossible choices—an unforgettable, beautiful novel that is threaded throughout with the stories of mothers and daughters in pre-Roe versus Wade America.

“Life heads down back alleys, takes sharp left turns. Then, one fine day it jumps the track and crashes.”

In the fall of 1957, Olivia McAlister is living in Opelika, Mississippi, caring for her two girls, June and Grace, and her husband, Holly. She dreams of living a much larger life—seeing the world and returning to her wartime job at a landing boat factory in New Orleans. As she watches over the birds in her yard, Olivia feels like an “accidental”—a migratory bird blown off course.

When Olivia becomes pregnant again, she makes a fateful decision, compelling Grace, June, and Holly to cope in different ways. While their father digs up the backyard to build a bomb shelter, desperate to protect his family, Olivia’s spinster sister tries to take them all under her wing. But the impact of Olivia’s decision reverberates throughout Grace’s and June’s lives. Grace, caught up in an unconventional love affair, becomes one of the “girls who went away” to have a baby in secret. June, guilt-ridden for her part in exposing Grace’s pregnancy, eventually makes an unhappy marriage. Meanwhile Ed Mae Johnson, an African-American care worker in a New Orleans orphanage, is drastically impacted by Grace’s choices. 

As the years go by, their lives intersect in ways that reflect the unpredictable nature of bird flight that lands in accidental locations—and the consolations of imperfect return.

Filled with tragedy, humor, joy, and the indomitable strength of women facing the constricted spaces of the 1950s and 60s, The Accidentals is a poignant, timely novel that reminds us of the hope and consolation that can be found in unexpected landings.

How I Came to Write The Accidentals

The Accidentals by Minrose GwinI generally see the kernel of a story in a flash of something that catches my eye, in one compelling image. The Accidentals, however, unfolded in the shape of three. The first was a picture I found several years ago after someone told me that a little mutt I'd adopted at the local pound looked like the first Sputnik dog. A small, mild-manner female named Laika, she was unlucky enough to have been strapped in a capsule the size of a rural mailbox and launched into space by the Russians in 1957, much to the world's amazement.

With the picture of the beautifully marked little dog came a story. Found wandering the streets of Moscow scrounging food, Laika was calm, friendly, and compliant. She easily accommodated to small spaces. In preparation for the space mission, she was held in smaller and smaller cages for ten to twenty days at a time. The evening before the launch of Sputnik 2, one of the Russian scientists felt sorry for her and took her home to play with his children. The next morning she was strapped into her capsule. Sections of her skin were shaved, and medical sensors were placed on her body.

The picture I found shows Laika sitting inside her capsule before lift-off, looking happy and relaxed and trusting.

After lift-off, the Russians told the world there was no plan to bring Laika home. Later, they announced that Laika had died after several days in orbit. Actually, she died a few hours after launch when the thermal apparatus of her capsule failed and the temperature inside reached around a hundred and five degrees. She may have also succumbed to stress and panic; her pulse was three times its normal rate at launch and then dropped dramatically below resting level at the start of weightlessness.

The name Laika means barker, and little Laika is said to have barked until the capsule became her coffin. Bearing her remains, it orbited the earth 2,570 times before burning up on re-entry.

The second image came to me at the rear of Audubon Zoo in New Orleans. In the back of the zoo there is a relatively large area adjoining the giraffes' enclosure where the giraffes can walk about fairly freely. One day I was watching two of them walk around together and suddenly they began to do something called "necking," using their long necks to hit each other with a resounding whap. At intervals they stopped and rotated their necks in circles and then went back to the whapping. It was highly stylized and beautiful, and it looked like a giraffe form of dancing.

As I watched this strange and fascinating activity, entranced by the giraffes and at the time not knowing what they were doing or why, a picture slipped into my mind: two young girls peering through slats in the tall fence, as I was doing in that moment, watching these giraffes performing their magical giraffe dance—doing this natural thing with their bodies—while at home the girls' mother, entrapped by a third pregnancy, lay delirious, bleeding to death from a botched abortion.

Both of these images took me to the plight of girls and women in the 1950s—pre-pill, pre-Roe v. Wade—and the sense of entrapment and constriction so many girls and women experienced then, in stark contrast to the optimistic expansiveness of space travel that culminated in 1969 in the first man walking on the moon, proclaiming "one giant leap for mankind."

And these two images—Laika in her capsule and those two wistful, innocent sisters watching the giraffes "dance"—seemed in many ways in tension with each other: the little doomed dog an image of entrapment and constriction and the giraffes the very picture of imaginative freedom within a constricted space, their flamboyant pushback against the enclosure of the zoo. I thought of growing up in a small (and for the unmarried, pill-less) Mississippi town a decade later: the girls I knew in high school who "went away" to have their babies, who were quickly put up for adoption, or those who barely escaped with their lives after going to backwoods "chiropractors" to have abortions performed with kitchen utensils; the resiliency of those girls and women who made the choice to keep their accidental children and in the process lost or postponed their own dreams and plans. I thought about shame. I wanted to write about those girls and women and children and the children's caretakers, who had their own children to worry about, and what happened to them: how they lived or didn't; how they created their own freedom within such tiny, limiting spaces; how brave and fierce and irrepressible they were.

Finally, the third image of the book arrived in the form of a painted bunting at my backyard feeder in North Carolina. With its royal blue head, orange-red chest, and yellow and green-tipped wings, this rainbow of a bird took my breath away and reminded me of another bird with drop-dead plumage, the extinct Carolina parakeet. An accidental, my birder neighbor said of the painted bunting: off track from its normal migration path, seldom observed in the piedmont area of North Carolina. I'd never heard that term used as a noun, and the whole concept of being an accidental struck me as enormously generative. Each of these characters is an accidental, in the sense of getting off track in life's great migration; each finds her or him self in foreign territory, having been blown off track by the winds of chance.

All of these thoughts took shape in the pages of The Accidentals. Whether it's about a frustrated woman's fixation on the freedom of birds, a mother's devotion to her brilliant but troubled son at the cost of her own career, the extended confinement in jail for the orphanage carer who makes the mistake of thinking about her own children while she works, a high school girl's unconventional love for her "boys" that extends over the decades, or a father's dream of his own pregnancy, there is a powerful life force here that defies repression, that bubbles up. There's a doom to it, deep tragedy and wrecked lives, but there's also beauty—the giraffes' dance, the bird's irrepressible call: joy.

So the central story of Grace and June McAlister, the two sisters of the novel, came to me through the images and blessings of animals. The third chapter of The Accidentals—Grace and June watching the giraffes dance—is the first thing I wrote. It's the launch pad—and the accidental heart—of the whole book.

—Minrose Gwin