I am delighted to be part of the book launch celebrations for Courtney McKinney-Whitaker’s brilliant YA novel “The Last Sister.” Today, I’m posting my review of the book, and over the next few days, I’ll be posting an interview I did with the author.
On the morning of her birthday, December 21, 1759, Catriona Blair’s older brother Mark takes her into the forest to teach her to use his musket. It is his gift to her, as their preacher father has forbidden Catie to shoot a weapon; he wants her to be a proper young lady, insofar as she can be in the wilds of rural South Carolina, on the brink of Indian territory. She is meant to marry Owen, a boy she has known most of her life, and in fact, both their families expect him to propose that day, as she turns seventeen. But when she and Mark return home, they find their cabin burned and their family dead. Though it appears to be the work of the Cherokee, enemies of the British settlers, Mark thinks it has only been made to look that way… and he’s right. It is instead the work of a neighbor, Donald Campbell, who wants to use the war with the Cherokee as a way to grab more land for himself. Bereft of her family, Catie sets out on a quest for justice. Along the way, she finds an unexpected ally in a young Scotsman, a deserter from the English army, and is reunited with Owen. It is a transformative journey for Catie, one that exacts a heavy price but also rewards her with a love worth committing herself to.
Catie is a vividly drawn and thoroughly believable character. You live every step of her journey with her, enduring every moment of doubt and insecurity, every fierce conviction, every physical pain. The vibrant, honest writing is the reason for this total immersion. While Catie is in a fever, she says, “I become the ball in the rifle, rolling down the barrel, ripping through the trees.” (p.44). At a moment when Catie knows she’s supposed to be happy and relieved, she feels anything but: “I cannot explain it even to myself, but all I want right now is for [him] to go away and leave me alone, and this is so unfair that I am repulsed by my own feelings.” (p.109). This emotional confusion is completely genuine, and you as a reader feel it too, and your heart aches for Catie.
The descriptions in the novel are beautifully crafted and perfectly suited to a frontier girl in 1759. “The sobs are squatters in my throat,” says Catriona (p. 23) and, upon arriving at a British fortification: “A log palisade stitches a diamond into the ground,” (p. 31).
But more than these – these kinds of gems are scattered throughout the book – let me give you an example of what I love about Courtney’s writing:
“The kiss is quick, the punctuation on the end of a joke, but it turns into something more serious, more intentional, on the way to my eyelids… I close my eyes and imagine threads of flame lighting everywhere his fingers touch, crisscrossing my body and delving inside it, like fire touched to lines of powder. I am barely moving, but I feel flushed, and though I can see my breath, I can’t catch it.” (p.89)
What I love about this description is the multitude of layers that it encompasses. First, it is a vivid depiction of the physical sensation of a kiss, entirely grounded in the world of the young woman who experiences it. I adore the very end of it: “though I can see my breath, I can’t catch it.” Second, it describes an emotional journey, from a sweet, almost playful moment to a deeply intense one. Finally, although Catie (and the reader) doesn’t know it, it is a foreshadowing of a graphic and violent moment yet to come that forces Catie to relinquish feelings that she was not, until that event, ready to give up (and I won’t spoil for you).
This is the kind of writer Courtney is. Every character, both those drawn from history and those invented from Courtney’s imagination, comes brilliantly to life like this.
Bravo, too, to the gorgeous edition of the book itself. The line drawings that decorate the part and chapter divisions (arrows, rifles, a wagon, and other artefacts of Colonial-era life) are beautifully and accurately rendered, enhancing the reader’s experience of the novel.
Intelligent, well-written historical fiction is my favorite kind of reading, and Courtney McKinney-Whitaker’s debut novel, “The Last Sister” fulfills everything I could ask for in that genre. I would not be surprised if this book, like Courtney’s childhood favorite “Johnny Tremain,” were to become a classic and a classroom staple.
For more information on “The Last Sister” or author Courtney McKinney-Whitaker, visit her website at www.courtneymckinneywhitaker.com. And don’t forget to check back this week for my interview with Courtney!