FROM THE CHAPTER 16 ARCHIVE: This review originally appeared on February 9, 2022.
Knoxville author Julia Watts, known for her writing on LGBTQ+ characters living in the Bible Belt, adds a fresh voice with her latest novel Needlework. Sixteen-year-old Kody must navigate caring for his drug-addicted mother and avoid upsetting his grandmother, Nanny, all while grappling with his identity and the discovery of a new side of the family.
Kody, a student at Morgan County High School in rural Kentucky, spends most evenings sewing and watching The Golden Girls with Nanny. During the hours he has alone in the house before Nanny gets home from work, Kody plays “Dolly Dress-Up Hour,” where he applies makeup, dons a blond wig and a silk kimono robe, and lip synchs to a Dolly Parton album.
His interests clearly do not align with those of his hypermasculine country peers. Known for its strict, religious population and traditional coal-mining families, Kody’s hometown of Morgan is a place where resistance to change runs high, which makes sticking out even more painful. His younger brother Caleb and his Uncle Jay notice Kody’s reluctance to participate in traditionally male activities such as hunting and sports. When Uncle Jay invites him out deer hunting each season, Kody always gives a noncommittal response because, as he says, “I’ll never take a notion to go out in the cold at the crack of dawn to murder one of God’s beautiful creatures, but if I sound agreeable, it’ll shut Jay up.”
Kody has a lot more to deal with than his unorthodox interests. As Kody and Caleb are leaving the local Walmart with Nanny one evening, they spot their mother standing on the side of the road with a sign that reads, “HOMELESS AND HUNGRY PLEASE HELP.” Outraged, Nanny pulls the car over, and she and Kody convince his mother, Amanda, to get in the car. Because Walmart is right beside the interstate exit, Amanda is in full view of everyone in Morgan, “which will cause Nanny the maximum amount of embarrassment.” Despite this, Nanny still brings Amanda home and offers her food. Amanda, whom Kody and Caleb call Mommy, lives in a trailer that Nanny pays for just up the road. She refuses to eat and stays just long enough to use the shower — since the water is out in her trailer — before heading out to find her next fix.
Such visits from Mommy are irregular. Most days, they don’t hear from her at all, and Kody comes home from school to an empty house and the blissful “Dolly Dress-Up Hour.” Each Wednesday, Nanny comes home an hour early so they can go downtown to the public library. It’s there where Kody logs in to Facebook on one of the public computers to find a message request from a young Black woman named Macey who claims to be his sister. Shocked, Kody replies to say there must be a mix-up before his computer session expires.
Kody eventually reconnects with Macey, who convinces him that she really is his half-sister. But if that’s true, why haven’t Nanny or his mother ever mentioned her? Discovering his half-sister means there is a side to Mommy and Nanny that Kody does not know about, and he now has more secrets and questions than he knows what to do with.
“Before Macey fell into my life, I only had two secrets from Nanny,” says Kody. “One is Dolly Parton Dress-Up Hour. The other, which is kind of related to the first, is that I like boys.” He’s not sure how Nanny would react to the fact that he likes boys, and so he is even more frightened to bring up the existence of his Black half-sister. When Macey encourages him to come visit her in Knoxville, Kody begins lying to Nanny. As the lies thicken and tensions heighten, Kody finds himself expressing his wants and desires, even if it means his family may no longer accept him.
Watts doesn’t shy away from complex discussions on religion, race, sexuality, and what it means to love a family member despite their shortcomings in Needlework. Kody is a humble young man caught in the tangled web between rural Appalachian traditions and 21st-century forward-thinking ideals.
Abby N. Lewis is a part-time desk assistant for the North Knoxville Library. She is the author of the poetry collection Reticent and the chapbook This Fluid Journey. Her work has appeared in Across the Margin, Timber, and Red Eft Review.