Ominous and timely, No One Is Coming to Save Us explores the sense of displacement and dispossession that burrows within communities—and individuals—when work vanishes. The novel follows residents of Pinewood, a declining North Carolina factory town, as they ponder the twin perils of staying stuck in the stubborn red clay beneath them or moving earth to cut their own new roads.
Author Stephanie Powell Watts’ story could take place in countless small towns around the country—she points out that Allentown, Pennsylvania, is playing out a similar narrative with the steel industry’s uprooting. But the Lehigh University English professor (and Carolina native) planned from the outset to tell a North Carolina foothills story. She wanted to write with reverence and curiosity about home.
“I’d like for [readers] to think about the characters living in the South, in this post-integrationist era, and think of them just as people that could be their neighbors or their friends. And think of them with grace and charity,” says Watts. “I’d love it if people thought, ‘This is a human story and this could happen.’ ”
With the setting secure and characters imagined, Watts’ biggest writing challenge became situating the story in time and tone. When she began working on the novel eight years ago, it was a very different creation, set 20 years earlier and centering on a family tragedy. But a tourist ghost tour, of all things, pushed her in a fresh direction.
“Every time you visit a city, there’s a ghost tour and there are children ghosts,” she explains. “I started thinking, why are there no black children ghosts? It seems like if there were going to be some really angry folks, wouldn’t black people be in that number? So I started thinking about that and particularly about the ghosts that are kind of all over the landscape, especially in the South—the ghost of Jim Crow. And I thought, some of these ghosts, they’ve got to come back. They’ve got to come home to roost.”
And roost they do. No One Is Coming to Save Us features the tortured homecomings of lovers and friends alongside homegoings where little is laid to rest. The town defies sentimental notions of domicile, defined instead by its lacks, aches, and ruptures. The haunts it can't shake.
Pinewood residents watch with a mix of longing and loss as JJ Ferguson, formerly one of their own, builds a big, fancy home on Brushy Mountain Road. The soft-spoken foster child they knew too little about escaped the scrabble ground of their shotgun houses and erected a mansion in an enclave once reserved for the rich and the white—and it is a revelation. Watching his “walls rising up like raptured dead,” they begin to wonder if life holds some unexpected promise for them too.
Watts’ narrative choices are refreshing and well-considered. She gives prominence to unlikely narrators navigating quiet, introspective moments. Take Sylvia, an aging woman with a no-good husband, distant daughter, and absent son. “I felt like there is so much silencing of people of a certain age and certain class, and certainly of women, and I wanted to hear her,” Watts says of Sylvia. “I wanted to give her her due.”
Sylvia, for one, “was glad for JJ that he could come rolling into town like Big Daddy Rich, money like a superpower at his fingertips,” Watts writes. The residue of his autonomy cloaked a bit of the impotence Sylvia felt.
Other characters have a say as perspectives shift from chapter to chapter. We meet Henry, whose job choices amount to a dead-end furniture factory or a stinking chicken plant two towns over; Marcus, who clings to the voice of a stranger on the end of a misdialed collect call while he does time in prison; and Sylvia’s daughter Ava, who seeks hope and connection at Mommies2Be.com because they’re scarce offline.
“I wanted to be able to give the characters a moment, but not necessarily in the most dramatic of moments,” says Watts. “I wanted you to be able to live with them in moments where they were either revving up to something or they were really contemplating what had just happened. I want to see how they think and think along with them.”
Watts’ commitment to character introspection predates the novel and has been rewarded with numerous short fiction prizes, including a Whiting Award and a Pushcart Prize. Noted novelists Edward P. Jones and Sigrid Nunez have praised her evocation of “real souls” of the kind seldom depicted in contemporary American fiction.
“I really love voice literature,” Watts says. “I love that feeling of being immersed in the poetry of someone’s thinking. That’s what I’ve always loved and always been drawn to, and that’s the way that I try to write.”
Watts’ love of literature extends to the classroom as well—writing, reading, and teaching are symbiotic for her. There are times when a student needs help navigating a challenge in writing and Watts is grappling with the same thing in her own work or she’s reading someone who handles the issue well (or not). The threads interweave in ways that help Watts nudge her own work and that of her students' forward.
Watts says she has always written and always will. “Even when I was a kid I loved thinking about things and then writing them and trying to figure them out through writing them,” she elaborates. “It’s helped me to kind of translate what’s going on in my world.”
Getting to do that for a living is something Watts appreciates deeply. “I worked at a shoestring factory in the summer to get through college and it was so awful. It was dark and smelly and everybody was depressed,” she recalls. “You know what? I don’t have to do that now, and that is a huge deal. It’s a good day when I can write. It’s an amazing thing, and I don’t often take it for granted.”
Maya Payne Smart writes book reviews and musings.