As a debut novel, The Last Carolina Girl pulls no punches. In the span of a few hundred pages, fourteen-year-old Leah Payne experiences the many ways in which life can change at the drop of a hat: from the split second when the person you love most is claimed by the universe to the harsh edicts of a corrupt government institution. Many thanks to Sourcebooks Landmark for providing an ARC copy for me to review.

As someone who has lived in the South for most of her life, the ability to picture the scenery Meagan Church described played a huge role in how much I enjoyed this book. Even if readers have never set foot in coastal Carolina, I can attest that they’ll have no trouble at all mapping the terrain as they follow the protagonist’s own poignant journey through adolescence and the turmoil that the region experienced in the 1930s. This attention to detail also spilled from the surroundings in the book to the pointed interactions between characters, leaving little room for doubt as to their intentions and inner musings as the story played out. In a way, this made them almost transparent, even predictable, but with a plot such as this, it’s my opinion that readers will still have plenty to speculate on as they go.

With the state eugenics board looming behind and supporting one social and medical horror after the next, The Last Carolina Girl sheds light on one of the not-so-secret truths about the past that still stain the South’s reputation today. Given the controversy surrounding these events, it almost seems as if the plot lines focusing on the exploits and tailored trials of a teenaged girl would get lost in the greater scheme of things. However, Church does an excellent job of keeping the story local, so to speak, and introduces new ways for readers to invest themselves in Leah as a person, not just as a function of the book and the history it represents.

Despite the heavier subject matter, the prose itself also reads as though the reader were having a heart-to-heart conversation with the characters, especially Leah. Applying this personal touch down to the very choices involving which words she used to insert exposition is, in this reader’s opinion, something that will set Church apart from authors of similar works. Informative, yet engaging, the description of events from the time we meet Leah to the book’s conclusion is an almost perfect combination of straightforward and poetic and makes it clear that the protagonist is indeed a bit of an old soul even before her life is irrevocably disrupted.

Readers who often lose themselves in historical fiction told through younger voices like Lily’s Crossing, Where the Crawdads Sing, and Out of the Dust will appreciate the mature topics covered in The Last Carolina Girl as told with the relative innocence of a child forced to become an adult before her time.

Published by kwatkins

Writer, editor, reader, steering wheel singer. She/her. Twitter and Instagram: @thekwatkins. #kwatkins #writelikeaboss

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