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From the Stacks: Mystery novel weaves history, social justice into plot

by Mariah Luebbering | March 12, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.
"The Last House on the Street" by Diane Chamberlain. MRRL/News Tribune.

Kayla Carter is a young mom when she suddenly loses her husband in a tragic accident.

Now newly widowed and the mother of a 4-year-old daughter, Kayla must face moving into the recently finished house that she and her husband designed and built together.

Just as she is attempting to move on, a stranger arrives at Kayla's work and begins a vaguely threatening conversation. She knows the details of how Kayla's husband died and knows far too much information about Kayla's daughter.

After an uncomfortable conversation, the stranger takes her leave, but not before warning Kayla that should she move into her new home, someone will die.

With this astonishing opening, Diane Chamberlain begins a story that wraps history and mystery together to form a brilliant and suspenseful plot.

"The Last House on the Street" moves through time and keeps the reader needing to know what happens next.

Shaken, Kayla calls the police but all they can do is advise Kayla to be watchful and let them know if anything else happens.

Soon, many more nerve-wracking events begin to happen. Dead animals are left in her yard and her daughter is lured out into the woods and left alone. The events are terrifying and exhausting to the young mom and it becomes very clear, very quickly, that someone doesn't want Kayla living in this house.

In the meantime, the narrator of a second storyline takes us back in time to the 1960s during the civil rights era and begins describing her interactions with the SCOPE project in North Carolina.

The SCOPE program paired northern white students with southern Black counterparts who would visit local Black families together and encourage them to register to vote. This program was taking place during the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The narrator of the past historical story arc is Ellie Hockley, a young white college student who wants to be part of the change but has no idea of the turmoil that will come to her small, sleepy town.

During the 1960s, the interactions between people who wanted to help those in the Black community register to vote and those who did not want the status quo to alter at all became incendiary and often erupted into violence. The drama that begins to play out in her small town whirls around Ellie.

Ellie signs up to be a part of a SCOPE and is warned by the leaders of the program that she will be met with suspicion and resistance. She is not dissuaded, though, knowing that this important issue is her passion and heart.

Soon, the predicted trouble begins. The white citizens of Ellie's hometown are outraged at Ellie's participation and her family is ostracized. The tension grows daily and soon, the once kindly community is home to a KKK group.

Ellie's story builds until it reaches a culminating tragic event.

Diane Chamberlain builds the drama based off true history and expertly melds it with a modern day murder mystery to tell a story that will break your heart then slowly put the pieces back together again.

"The Last House on the Street" reveals an ugly history but, and this is important, it shines the light on the hope that once existed and continues to exist today. We can't change the past but, if we want, we can make the present something to be proud of.

Mariah Luebbering works in adult services for the Missouri River Regional Library.

Print Headline: From the Stacks: Mystery novel weaves history, social justice into plot


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