The Last House on the Street – Diane Chamberlain

How does Ellie, a twenty year old pharmacy student at University of North Carolina, born and raised the daughter of a pharmacist in Round Hill evolve into a freedom fighter, voter registration worker, civil rights activist in 1965? What does this mean to everything she ever took for granted in life? A personal note: I grew up in Central Pennsylvania with a mother who was a civil rights activist who went to the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom. I played with the child of the black woman who ironed our clothes and who my Mom helped to find a stable, real job in our school system. Ellie plays with the black child of their maid and has an Aunt Carol from New York who lived with them after her uncle died. Aunt Carol went to the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom. The town sees her as kind of crazy. So, before her death, Aunt Carol has influenced Ellie to see things differently, with humanity. Meanwhile, in 2010, Kayla is reeling from her 29 year old husband’s death on the construction site of their new home. He slipped and fell shortly before the two architects and their three year old daughter were to move into the contemporary house they designed together for seven years.. Kayla’s staying with her widowed father in Round Hill until the house is ready. It is set deep among trees and now, that feature that appealed to her husband feels ominous. As new houses are under construction along the street, the only neighbor right now lives in the original house on the road. Word has it he is terminally ill. Kayla feels loss, ambivalence about moving into her home without the love of her life and now, burgeoning fear because of a visit from a strange older lady who drops by Kayla’s office in an obvious effort to scare her away from her house. Chamberlain gives us an authentic story of the experience of the young students, white outsiders and local black students who worked to register black voters at the dawn of the voting rights act, not yet signed when Ellie joins on. She does not use one bit of gratuitous violence, but there is violence. She paints a stark picture of rural southern black poverty through some of the homes Ellie stays in, but does not stereotype once. And eventually Ellie’s experience in summer 1965 and what is happening to Kayla in 2010 gives us a history of race relations in Round Hill. Rocks are turned over. And it is painful, yet not too hard to read because the characters are strong women and they keep going as best they can, acknowledging the pain but doing what you do in life when you experience great loss. I love the simplicity and the depth of Diane Chamberlain’s writing. She is accessible and she keeps things real.

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