Diane Chamberlain grabs us from the first few pages in “The Last House on the Street,” when main character Kayla is confronted by a hostile woman, masquerading as a prospective client, who unsettlingly knows more than is comfortable about Kayla and the recent death of her husband, as well as about her young daughter and the secluded new house they are preparing to move into. Her tone is threatening and causes Kayla to feel even more fearful about moving into the house that she and her husband, both architects, had built as the house of their dreams.
That house, in the small town of Round Hill, North Carolina, is literally the last house on a street that has only one other house on it, and is on a large piece of property, filled with huge windows and surrounded by a forest. Kayla and her late husband, Jackson, had loved, imagining that they would be living in the midst of nature. But now Kayla has lost her husband, and she feels strangely nervous about the home. When she goes through her husband’s documents and finds a letter from her father telling Jackson that perhaps this is not the best location for them to build their home, she has even more questions.
Along with Kayla’s first person narrative, which takes place in 2010, we hear from a woman who grew up in that other house on Kayla’s street. Ellie shares her story, also in first person, about her experiences in 1965 when she decides to work with activists encouraging people to register to vote during the time just before President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. Ellie’s family, her best friend Brenda, and her boyfriend Reed are all shocked at this decision. In fact, as we learn, North Carolina at this time had more members of the KKK than all the members in other states combined. While North Carolina was not considered the “Deep South,” they were certainly not entirely open to desegregation and equal rights. In the story, Ellie must convince the local Black minister organizing the activists of her sincerity because almost all the white activists were from the North.
Chamberlain’s writing is compelling, and her main characters are both sympathetic women. We admire them, and while our heart breaks for Kayla and her loss, and we fear for her safety, we also feel great admiration for Ellie as she bucks everything that the white people in her town believe, including the beliefs of her parents, her friends, and practically every acquaintance. She knows no white person who supports what she is doing — trying to encourage Blacks to register to vote. The fact that she is living with Black families and working alongside Blacks is repugnant to them, yet she perseveres.
I found that once I started this book, my phone went ignored as I read page after page. I was consumed by the dual stories. I wanted to know how Ellie ended up living in San Francisco for forty-five years after her 1965 story, having never returned to Round Hill in all that time. I wanted to know what had happened to cause her to leave town at the age of twenty, not to return until her brother is dying of congestive heart failure, which is when she returns and meets Kayla. Chamberlain reveals the answers to our questions carefully, and while some of our suspicions are confirmed, she leaves one horrifying twist to almost the very end.
One cannot read this touching, tragic, and terribly realistic novel without reflecting on our history of civil rights issues and where we are today. Referenced in the novel are the three civil rights activists, men in their early twenties, Andrew Goodman, James Earl Chaney, and Michael Schwerner, who were brutally murdered for their part in trying to register Black people to vote during the time when the federal Voting Rights Act was being passed. In the Author’s Note, Chamberlain writes, “How wonderful it would be to be able to say that the Voting Rights Act…put an end to voting discrimination.” She goes on to write that since the 2013 Supreme Court decision to do away with the oversight of state voting laws, legislators in at least 43 states are trying to pass — and succeeding — “laws that will make voting more difficult, particularly for people of color. It’s distressing that politics continues to play such a pivotal role in what should be a basic American right.”
Don’t miss this brilliant novel. It’s historical fiction with several mysteries embedded in the plot; a love story; a remarkable view into the Deep South and the bigotry and prejudice that were a core part of the lives of most Southerners; an indictment of those in law enforcement who were all too often members of the KKK; and a story of family and friendship.
Please note: This review, slightly edited, was first posted on Bookreporter.com.