Spotlight: Promise by Minrose Gwin

Promise by Minrose Gwin
Published: February 27, 2018
Publisher: William Morrow

A few minutes after 9 p.m. on Palm Sunday, April 5, 1936, a massive funnel cloud flashing a giant fireball and roaring like a runaway train careened into the thriving cotton-mill town of Tupelo, Mississippi, killing more than 200 people, not counting an unknown number of black citizens, one-third of Tupelo’s population, who were not included in the official casualty figures.

When the tornado hits, Dovey, a local laundress, is flung by the terrifying winds into a nearby lake. Bruised and nearly drowned, she makes her way across Tupelo to find her small family—her hardworking husband, Virgil, her clever sixteen-year-old granddaughter, Dreama, and Promise, Dreama’s beautiful light-skinned three-month-old son.

Slowly navigating the broken streets of Tupelo, Dovey stops at the house of the despised McNabb family. Inside, she discovers that the tornado has spared no one, including Jo, the McNabbs’ dutiful teenage daughter, who has suffered a terrible head wound. When Jo later discovers a baby in the wreckage, she is certain that she’s found her baby brother, Tommy, and vows to protect him.

During the harrowing hours and days of the chaos that follows, Jo and Dovey will struggle to navigate a landscape of disaster and to battle, both the demons and the history that link and haunt them. Drawing on historical events, Minrose Gwin beautifully imagines natural and human destruction in the deep South of the 1930s through the experiences of two remarkable women whose lives are indelibly connected by forces beyond their control. A story of loss, hope, despair, grit, courage, and race, Promise reminds us of the transformative power and promise that come from confronting our most troubled relations with one another.

MINROSE GWIN, like the characters in her latest novel, Promise, grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi. She began her writing career as a newspaper and wire service reporter in cities throughout the southeast. Her civil rights-era novel, The Queen of Palmyra, was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, and a finalist for the John Gardner Fiction Book Award.  Her memoir, Wishing for Snow, tells the story of her mother’s descent into mental illness.

Wearing another hat, Minrose is also the author of cultural and literary studies books that focus on racial injustice. In Remembering Medgar Evers: Writing the Long Civil Rights Movement, she writes of the reverberating impact of the Civil Rights leader’s martyrdom. She is also a coeditor of The Literature of the American South and has taught as a professor at universities across the country, most recently the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


Promise is based on an actual event that occurred in 1936, the historically devastating tornado that leveled my hometown of Tupelo, in northeastern Mississippi, during the height of the Great Depression. With winds estimated at between 261-318 miles per hour, an F5, the highest level on the Fujita Scale, it leveled about half the town of around 7,000. The official death toll was 233; around 1,000 were listed as injured, many of them losing limbs. Based on these figures, it remains today the fourth most deadly tornado in the history of the United States.

Afterward, the dead and dying were strewn about the town, dangling in the sheared limbs of leafless trees, buried under debris, pinned to the bottom of a small lake called Gum Pond, laid out in makeshift morgues. Featherless chickens and hornless steers wandered the city streets. Debris littered the neighboring state of Tennessee. Growing up in my grandparents’ sturdy four-square brick house, one of the few left standing on their side of town, I heard these stories and many more about what we had come to call “our tornado.” I thought I knew everything there was to know, truth or lore, about the Tupelo tornado. I was wrong.

It was in 2011, when another monster tornado carved a giant hole through Tuscaloosa, Alabama, that questions emerged about the official death records of the Tupelo tornado. Those questions exposed a deeper wound in my town, the wound of race. As it turned out, the only victims counted were white people; the death and injury tolls were in reality much higher than they appeared on paper. Baldly stated, black bodies were considered so unimportant that they weren’t even counted as casualties in the official records. Digging into newspaper archives in the wake of the storm, I also found listings for separate restaurants serving free food to white and ‘colored’ people, separate hotels, even separate “Box Car Cities,” the cars made available for temporary housing by the Frisco railroad. With the notable exceptions of a photograph of a row of bodies of African Americans lying in an alley and a group of black men dredging Gum Pond for bodies, even the existing photographs of the storm’s wounded and able-bodied survivors are of white people; the houses pictured in various states of wreckage were mostly inhabited by whites.

So the cold hard fact of the matter was that what my family called “our tornado” wasn’t “ours” at all, at least not in the larger, more communal sense of the term. It was the white story but not the whole story. The real story, the whole story of the tornado, is one of the deeper devastations of racial injustice, which extended even beyond the grave.

I came upon this real story when I was in the middle of another novel, but it gripped me and it angered me and it wouldn’t let me go. I began to feel I had a responsibility to write this story.  And I have felt it even more as time has gone on and we’ve been confronted with events in Ferguson and Charleston and Charlottesville. The story of racial violence, racial injustice, is an old story; but unfortunately and tragically, it continues to make itself new, and not just in the South but throughout the country. So, for me, Promise is as much about our present, and even our future, as it is about our past.


Tuesday, Feb. 27: Novel. | 6:00 PM | Memphis, TN

Wednesday, Feb. 28: Reed’s Gumtree Books | 5:00 PM | Tupelo, MS

Thursday, March 1: Square Books | 6:00 PM | Oxford, MS

Friday, March 2: Turnrow Books | 11:00 AM | Greenwood, MS

Saturday, March 3: Lemuria Books | 2:00 PM | Jackson, MS

Tuesday, March 6: Flyleaf Books | 6:00 PM | Chapel Hill, NC

Saturday, March 10: McIntyre’s | 2:00 PM | Pittsboro, NC

Monday, March 12: Country Bookshop | 5:00 PM | Southern Pines, NC

Tuesday, March 13: Quail Ridge | 7:00 PM | Raleigh, NC

Friday, March 16: Blue Ridge Books | 12:30 PM | Waynesville, NC

Saturday, March 17: M. Judson Booksellers & Storytellers | 6:30 PM | Greenville, SC

Sunday, March 18: Hub City Books “Delicious Reads” event | 2:00 PM | Spartanburg, SC

Wednesday, March 21: Octavia Books | 6:00 PM | New Orleans, LA

Thursday, March 22: Pass Christian Books | 5:30 PM | Pass Christian, MS

Saturday, March 24: Tennessee Williams Festival | New Orleans, LA

Thursday, April 12: Bookworks | 6:00 PM | Albuquerque, NM


“Gwin's prose is profound and Faulkner-ian in tone. Those who enjoy Southern fiction that explores both sides of the color line will want to give Gwin's latest a gander and the novel's especially timely focus on what happens to communities in the aftermath of a natural disaster will draw many readers.”—Kirkus Reviews

“[An] atmospheric whirlwind of a book. A memorable, dreamlike narrative…that vividly conveys what it was like to survive the fourth most deadly tornado in U.S. history; it also brings to light the vast disparity in the care and treatment of white vs. black residents”—Library Journal

“This story of bravery and survival is heart wrenching and uplifting, well researched and realistic. Filled with beautiful language and a quick pace, Promise will not be easily forgotten by readers.”—RT Book Reviews, 4 stars

“Promise is an extraordinary novel [...] one of racial divides, good and evil, destruction and salvation and those clear moments of grace and humanity that bring hope into the most desperate times. I could not put it down.”—Jill McCorkle, author of Going Away Shoes

“Gwin’s gift shines in the complexity of her characters and their fraught relationships with each other, their capacity for courage and hope, coupled with their passion for justice. [...] I couldn’t put this novel down, and I don’t think you’ll want to either.”—Jonis Agee, bestselling author of The River Wife

“This book is a monumental achievement, and Gwin is a fiercely talented writer.”—Jaimee Wriston Colbert, author of Wild Things

“Lyrically precise, taut, and realistic, Promise kept me absorbed from beginning to end.”—Julie Kibler, bestselling author of Calling Me Home

“Promise is a powerful story about yet another forgotten chapter in our great national drama. Minrose Gwin knows her characters well and writes about them and their place and times with sympathy and wisdom.”—Steve Yarbrough, author of The Realm of Last Chances

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