Maria is a book reviewer, editor, and proofreader, as well as a master of public health, master gardener, photographer, artist, and writer.
I was invited by St. Martin’s Press to read the ARC of The Last House on the Street, by Diane Chamberlain, in exchange for an honest review. I have read her books before, so I knew it would be passionate and gritty, and would tell an important story. I was right. This beautifully written book and its characters will haunt me for a long time, and it couldn’t have been written at a better time in our history. It’s due out January 11, 2022, and it can’t come soon enough.
An Important Book
While examining the still-elusive quest for social justice, The Last House tells a tale of forbidden love in 1965, and two families forever linked by secrets, crime, bigotry, and tragedy. The chronicle unfolds as the two primary characters tell their stories in dual time periods: 1965 and 2010. Much of the story takes place in 1965, but moves to 2010 as the truth comes to light.
It’s 2010, and recently widowed Kayla Carter, still plans to move with her three-year-old daughter, Rainie, into the home she and her late husband, Jackson, designed together. Her only misgivings about the house are sadness, at least until a strange woman visits Kayla in her office at her architectural firm, and cryptically warns her not to move there, saying the land is haunted and that she wants to kill someone.
Creepy Things Are Happening
Soon, disturbing things begin happening at Kayla’s new home. First, she hears creepy noises at night. Then dozens of dead squirrels are left hanging from a redbud tree in her front yard. The last straw is when Rainie disappears. She is found, and that is when Ellie, who had previously been aloof toward Kayla, begins telling Kayla her story.
It is 1965, and Ellie, a pharmacy student at UNC-Chapel Hill, learns of a project to help black citizens learn about the new Voting Rights Act that is soon to be signed into law by then-President Lyndon Johnson. Some students from outside the south are being trained to work on this project, and Ellie wants to help.
Ellie Only Thought She Knew Her Parents
Against her parents’ objections, Ellie signs up to work on the project. The minister in charge assigns each student a place to stay in the homes of church members in the areas where they will be working. Ellie is assigned to her home county, but it is not a part of the county she has ever seen; and the bigotries of her parents and their friends comes to light in ways the very sheltered teenage Ellie could not have predicted.
It’s All About Control
After living temporarily in several homes, she asks herself how much of white peoples’ comfort comes from having control of their lives for generations, as opposed to having little or no control. Imagine fearing that you could lose your job or be evicted from your rental home for registering to vote – something most of us take for granted.
The Trust Factor
The students are sent into the communities in pairs. Because of the trust factor, each white student is paired with a black student. Against the rules, Ellie and Winston (Win) gradually realize they are falling in love. When Ellie’s parents and friends learn of this, all hell breaks loose. A grieving Ellie leaves the state and doesn’t return until 2010 when her beloved brother is dying.
I Learned a Lot
I learned a lot about the beautiful state in which I lived for fifteen years. Here are a few of those things:
- In 1965, North Carolina had more Klan members than all the other states combined.
- The registrar’s office closed during the weeks of the project, preventing those encouraged by the students from registering to vote. It would not reopen until Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.
- Directing money away from schools in poor communities kept citizens from being able to pass the literacy test required to register to vote. That test was removed by the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
What Made The Grumpy Book Reviewer Grumpy?
- A few typos that will be fixed in the published version;
- several instances of incorrect verb usage that probably won’t be corrected: bringing vs. taking, brought vs. took, bring vs. take, would have vs. had, and one that may be corrected: is vs. are; and
- a few split infinitives (my pet peeve).
© 2021 Maria Logan Montgomery