The Last Carolina Girl
By: Meagan Church
Narrator: Susan Bennett
RB Media, Recorded Books
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication Date: 03/28/2023
Format: Audiobook & e-book
My Rating: 5 Stars ++ (ARC)
A searing book club novel for fans of Where the Crawdad's Sing and The Girls in the Stilt House following one girl fighting for her family, her body, and her right to create a future all her own
Some folks will do anything to control the wild spirit of a Carolina girl...
For fourteen-year-old Leah Payne, life in her beloved coastal Carolina town is as simple as it is free. Devoted to her lumberjack father and running through the wilds where the forest meets the shore, Leah's country life is as natural as the Loblolly pines that rise to greet the Southern sky.
When an accident takes her father's life, Leah is wrenched from her small community and cast into a family of strangers with a terrible secret. Separated from her only home, Leah is kept apart from the family and forced to act as a helpmate for the well-to-do household. When a moment of violence and prejudice thrusts Leah into the center of the state's shameful darkness, she must fight for her own future against a world that doesn't always value the wild spirit of a Carolina girl.
Set in 1935 against the very real backdrop of a recently formed state eugenics board, The Last Carolina Girl is a powerful and heart-wrenching story of fierce strength, forgotten history, autonomy, and the places and people we ultimately call home.
About the Author
Author. Wordsmith. Storyteller.
Meagan Church writes to explore the truths and nuances of who we are. But mostly she writes because she’s compelled to unearth overlooked stories. Her historical fiction chronicles the plight and fight of unheard voices of the past. After receiving a B.A. in English from Indiana University, Meagan built a career as a storyteller and freelance writer for brands, blogs, and organizations. A Midwesterner by birth, she now lives in North Carolina with her high school sweetheart, three children, and a plethora of pets.
Connect with Meagan
Exceptional Authors. Standout Books. Elevator Talk.
INTRIGUING QUESTIONS. INQUIRING READERS WANT TO KNOW.
Behind the Book
With Debut Novelist, Meagan Church
The Last Carolina Girl
Welcome to March 2023 #AuthorElevatorSeries —where we go behind the scenes of the book and the author. We are super excited to have with us, for the first time, Meagan Church with her debut novel, the highly anticipated —THE LAST CAROLINA GIRL.
Leah, the main character will steal your heart, gripping you from page one to the end. Meagan's stunning lyrical prose is spellbinding. Susan Bennett, the audiobook narrator is utterly captivating, delivering an award-winning performance.
One of my top books of the year and a contender for debut of the year! As a North Carolina native, I adore novels set in NC with its idyllic coastal and mountain areas—and some of the "best authors" reside in the popular Tarheel state.
Welcome, Meagan! Let's dive in.
Q. Give us your best ELEVATOR PITCH for THE LAST CAROLINA GIRL.
MEAGAN: Set in 1935, The Last Carolina Girl is the story of fourteen-year-old Leah who is growing up wild and free. When a tragic accident leaves her orphaned, she is sent away from the only home she has ever known. Set against the backdrop of eugenics, Leah must fight for her future against a world that doesn’t always value the wild spirit of a Carolina girl. It’s a story about forgotten history, autonomy, and the people and places we ultimately call home.
Q. INSPIRATION: The spark that ignited the novel? Where were you when the idea came to you?
MEAGAN: A series of moments merged and ignited. But it took me a while before I agreed to write it. Up until this novel, I had always written modern, contemporary storylines and the idea of historical fiction intimidated me because of the amount of research I knew I would have to put into it. The problem was that I had an idea and a character that wouldn’t leave me. I also had motivation because the story idea was inspired by my great aunt who was sterilized as an adolescent. In trying to make sense of how that could’ve happened to her, I began researching. Though Leah in The Last Carolina Girl is not my aunt, nor her story, learning what happened to my aunt set me on the path to develop the story.
Q. SETTING: Tell us more about the book setting and why you selected it.
MEAGAN: I assumed the story would be set in Indiana. It’s the state where my aunt was sterilized and where I grew up. I knew it well. But, as I began to research forced sterilization in the United States, my very first search result was an article from NPR on how North Carolina was making reparations for those they had sterilized. Then I learned that Mecklenburg County, where I now live, sterilized people at three times the rate of any other county in the state. I immediately knew that NC had to be the setting.
I also knew that Leah would need to be taken from a home she loved dearly. My happy place is a quiet, sandy beach. Then I learned that “love of the sea” could be a reason given to institutionalize someone which could lead to sterilization. Combining that mind-blowing fact with my love of the ocean, I knew that Holden Beach would be her home and Matthews in Mecklenburg County would be where she was sent.
Having moved to NC shortly before beginning the novel, I had fresh eyes to observe the beautiful landscape—the endless green tree canopies, constant blue skies, bushes blooming in all seasons, white-crested waves. The landscape of this state is something to behold and made writing about it so easy.
Q. WRITING: Do you have a favorite chapter or scene in the novel you enjoyed writing the most?
MEAGAN: The prologue. This scene was so real and visceral to me, in part because it was inspired by an evening at Ocean Isle, NC. It had been raining all day and the clouds broke just prior to sunset. I grabbed the kids and we raced to the beach to see a double rainbow reaching from shore to ocean. The sunset that evening was one of the most vibrant I’ve ever witnessed. But part of the reason why the prologue is my favorite is because of Leah and her father. All is well. We sense the tides will soon turn, but for that moment, life is absolutely perfect and as it should be. Leah went on a journey that at times I didn’t want her to have to take, but in that moment, she was happy, content and loved.
Q. TAKEAWAY: What important message, theme, or takeaway would you like readers to be left with when reading your book?
MEAGAN: I’ve heard some early readers say they wanted to reach through the pages and hug Leah. I love that. But what I hope is that readers will be left with empathy. I knew this story needed to be told through the eyes of someone who was up against sterilization, not a character who watched it happen to someone else. Honestly, Leah is someone who, as a society, we might leave on the outskirts. She’s poor, different, an interior loner. But by seeing through her eyes, I hope the reader can empathize with this “outsider” in a way that may make us in real life look for those on the margins of life and instead of ignoring them (or worse), actually see and embrace them.
Q. DID YOU KNOW? Name 1-5 things that readers may not know about the book.
MEAGAN: I often discuss the inspiration behind the novel and how my great aunt was sterilized by the state of Indiana. But what’s lesser known are other elements of my life that are woven into the text. For instance, my dad was a lumberjack. In fact, my grandpa started the business. His two sons went to work for him, and eventually two of my cousins and my brother also joined the family business. I knew well how dangerous a job it is. Sadly, we lost my uncle in an incident similar to the one in the book. I was quite young at the time, but I will never forget that day and its repercussions.
But beyond his profession, Harley Payne’s quiet demeanor and deep love for his daughter were also inspired by my dad. And his saying, “The only thing that stays the same is change,” is one of Dad’s favorite bits of wisdom.
Q. UPCOMING: Can you share what you are currently working on or what is next in ten words or less (or more)?
MEAGAN: Yes! Book two releases Spring 2024. Set in the Baby Scoop Era of the 1960s, The Girls We Sent Away is a story about Lorraine, the teen-age girl-next-door who has it all—the boyfriend, the good grades, the white picket fence, the ambition to become one of the first women astronauts. Until she becomes pregnant and is sent away to a maternity home. At first assuming the home is a safe haven, Lorraine begins to uncover truths that threaten her future. She must decide if she has the agency and power to fight for what she wants or if she must submit to the rules of the society she once admired.
The Girls We Sent Away juxtaposes the breakthrough technologies of the Race to Space with the societal realities that kept women grounded. This historical fiction novel explores autonomy, belonging, and a quest for freedom when the illusions of life-as-you-knew-it fall away.
Fascinating! Thank you, Meagan. We cannot wait for The Girls We Sent Away—Spring, 2024.
MEAGAN: Thanks for having me!
Now, for more "behind this talented debut author!"
Behind the Author
BIRTH STATE? or (Country)
YOUR SECRET TALENT?
As a child, I feared that I would be kidnapped for my whistling ability. Please understand that I am a horrible whistler. But, I have acquired a strange talent for being able to guess actors’ ages with decent accuracy.
FAVORITE TV SERIES? (Or Movie/Video) binge-watch, series, etc.?
Parks & Recreation, followed closely by The West Wing, The Office and Abbott Elementary
YOUR FAVORITE PLACE TO WRITE?
My writing loft. It’s detached from our house and is a quiet space with a window right above my desk where I can write in peace…aside from the snoring of my two golden retrievers who are always by my side.
DESCRIBE ONE THING ON YOUR DESK, CURRENTLY.
A seashell from Holden Beach, NC, that was the inspiration behind the shell that Leah places on her mother’s grave.
DO YOU LISTEN TO MUSIC WHILE WRITING?
Yes. Depending on the type of focus I need to give to the work, I sometimes play instrumental or French music, so I’m not too distracted by lyrics. Other times, I listen to playlists that I create for each novel with music from the time period to really immerse myself in that time.
INTROVERT OR EXTROVERT?
YOUR FAVORITE THING ABOUT BEING A PARENT?
Watching them grow into their own people. My kids are currently 16, 14 and 11. I feel like this is a sweet spot of ages. We are past the neediest phase of diapers and tantrums, but they haven’t left us yet. We can have conversations and they are becoming their own individualized selves. It’s amazing to watch.
FAVORITE THING ABOUT YOUR PARTNER?
His enthusiasm. While I can tend to be reserved and mellow, he is not afraid to show his excitement and he has been my constant cheerleader.
THE BEST THING ABOUT A PANDEMIC? (OR WORST)
It has been a time to reexamine everything and I truly believe that is a gift. It is easy to live life in the hamster wheel and simply keep going with the way things have always been. But when the world stood still, we looked around us and inside of ourselves. It was an important examine. And, it gave us so much time together as a family, free from busy schedules and other distractions.
THE LAST BOOK YOU RAVED ABOUT?
Rules for Visiting by Jessica Francis Kane. When I finished it, I immediately changed my book club’s schedule to include it. It’s a quiet, subtle book about friendship in middle age. And she’s a landscape architect, so it has a lot of plant-life in it. Perhaps it was that combination that seemed to just hit me in a profound way.
ONE BIT OF ADVICE YOU WOULD GIVE AN INSPIRING AUTHOR?
Persevere. It’s what my writing professor, Frances Sherwood, said was the key to publishing. Keep writing, keep learning, keep editing, keep your butt in the seat and keep going.
WHAT DO YOU CONSIDER TO BE THE MOST IMPORTANT ELEMENT OF A BOOK?
7. The Ending
Character. It’s where I always start and it’s what I always remember from other books. I may forget plot or setting, sometimes even the ending, but the impression of a character sticks with me. Even if I don’t love the ending, if the character is well-developed, I’ll still happily go along for the journey.
WHAT ARE EARLIER JOBS YOU HAD BEFORE BECOMING AN AUTHOR?
I wrote copy about RV toilets. True story. Fresh out of college with a degree in creative writing, I thought I’d write the Great American Novel. Instead, I took a job at an advertising agency and one of our clients manufactured RV toilets. For the past 17 years, I have been a freelance writer, and I’ve had clients and editors ask me what I can write about. I tell them that if I can write about RV toilets, I can write about anything.
HOW HAVE THESE EARLIER JOBS HELPED YOU OR BEEN INSTRUMENTAL IN YOUR WRITING CAREER?
I met my writing mentor at that ad agency. He taught me how to write more concisely and how to not bury the lead. He was one of the first readers of The Last Carolina Girl. Whether ad copy, press releases or fiction, he has helped me hone my writing skills for years now which has been instrumental and essential to bringing me to where I am today.
WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON TODAY?
I just got my editor’s notes on my second novel, The Girls We Sent Away, that releases in spring 2024, while also developing my next two novels.
Wallace Stegner. I get swept away by his quiet, literary stories and get lost in the characters. Crossing to Safety is my all-time favorite novel.
AT WHAT AGE DID YOU CONSIDER BECOMING A WRITER?
Apparently in second grade. I had forgotten until I graduated from high school and my second-grade teacher sent me a packet of papers she had saved from when I was in class. On one of them, I said that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up.
IF YOU COULD WRITE ANOTHER GENRE IN ADDITION TO THE CURRENT ONE, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
Contemporary, literary fiction
THANK YOU, Meagan, for spending time with us today!
MEGAN: Thank you! This was a lot of fun!
"A dynamic and wrenching tale of family secrets and eugenics. This author is off to a strong start." ― Publishers Weekly
"Set in the mid-1930s in the Carolinas, the book explores lesser-known aspects of American poverty and classism and how the now-discredited ideas of eugenics caused lasting pain. …shines a light on a part of American history that deserves to be better understood."
"Meagan Church has written a compelling and aching debut. The Last Carolina Girl is both a story of love and a tale of abuse set in the shadow of the Depression. There, a girl’s blind obedience to her circumstances―a kind girl uprooted by her tender daddy’s death―comes with a devastating price. Leah’s life as an orphan takes her far from the comfort of sand and sea, yet she is armed with tenuous hope and a plan. Gradually, she puts together the puzzle pieces of her fractured life and uncovers truths: family can deceive and betray, but love offers salvation."
― Leah Weiss, bestselling author of If the Creek Don’t Rise and All the Little Hopes
“[A] heart-wrenching and authentically rendered glimpse into the portal of a state’s secret dark culture, family ties, and the fierce strength of a young girl’s grit and resilience. Church is electric in her delivery of loss, longing and place. Unforgettable, this is a powerful debut to savor.“
–Kim Michele Richardson, New York Times bestselling author of THE BOOK WOMAN OF TROUBLESOME CREEK
“THE LAST CAROLINA GIRL is lyrical and atmospheric, a true masterpiece of Southern fiction… Church’s debut is a must-read.”
–Joy Callaway, international bestselling author of THE GRAND DESIGN
“Leah’s story is both humbling and inspiring. Church’s ode to the natural world, to the often elusive feeling of home, and to the friends who become family provokes profound reflection. A dark spot in history warps Leah’s path, but her resilient and unassailable character prevails. The Last Carolina Girl is a breathtaking read and Leah Payne an unforgettable character.”
– Lo Patrick, author of THE FLOATING GIRLS
“Fans of Where the Crawdads Sing and Before We Were Yours will find much to love in this evocative and thought-provoking debut. Church reaches into a shameful and little-known pocket of the past to give us a heroine who is plucky, tender, and determined to fight for her autonomy and dignity against insurmountable odds. This book will change the way you feel about the simple question of ‘Where is home?'”
– Kim Wright, author of LAST RIDE TO GRACELAND
“While readers will surely find all of the characters in Meagan Church’s debut compelling, the true beating heart of The Last Carolina Girl is its fourteen-year-old protagonist: a girl tied deeply to her natural landscape whose abrupt uprooting after the death of her beloved father comes with devastating consequences. Leah Payne and her indefatigable spirit will break your heart and put it back together again. I tore through this haunting and emotional story.”
– Erika Montgomery, author of A SUMMER TO REMEMBER
“This spirited, coming-of-age debut whisked me straight to the heart of the Carolinas in the 1930s. I couldn’t tear myself away from Leah’s journey, from the piney, isolated woods of her childhood, to an often bewildering life in the foreign world of the suburbs, where appearances are everything. Church so beautifully interweaves the connections between Leah’s deeply-sunk roots in the rural South with her search for belonging and her bravery in the face of unspeakable loss. This is a story that will stay with me; I knew little about the eugenics programs that had taken hold in American culture in that time period and Church’s tale left me wanting to research and understand more of this broken, devastating piece of America’s history.”
– Lisa DeSelm, author of THE PUPPETMASTER'S APPRENTICE
“In this piercing novel, Meagan Church depicts one of the most disgraceful episodes in American medical history: forced sterilization. As a physician, I am deeply ashamed of the real-life actions of the medical community fictionalized so eloquently in this book, but as an author and a reader, I’m grateful for the opportunity to envision it. The Last Carolina Girl is a powerful and thought-provoking story.”
– Kimmery Martin, author of DOCTORS AND FRIENDS
Master storyteller Meagan Church will blow you away with her highly impressive emotional, and compelling debut, THE LAST CAROLINA GIRL —a young girl caught in a tale of dark family secrets and Eugenics—forced to fight for survival, herself, her body, and her future. Southern fiction at its finest!
I loved this book!
At the heart of this novel is a shattering loss that irrevocably changes the lives of many young women. The author expertly unveils the truths and lies that drive this gripping, powerful tale of a dark part of our history.
Set in 1935 in Holden Beach, NC, we meet Leah Payne (age fourteen years old) who lives with her lumberjack father, Harley Payne—he calls her Mouse. She is a smart, vibrant, carefree teen who loves life. Her mom died when she was born, and she loves her dad, a wise man.
She loves living on the coastal shores of NC, surrounded by nature. They are happy in a little shack on Mr. Barna's property and she is dear friends with his son Jesse and their maid, Tulla.
Then a tragedy, her dad is killed in a logging accident. Everything she knows is being taken away from her—her home, her father, and her friends.
She is sent to live with a foster family in Matthews, NC (Mecklenburg County, near Charlotte, NC). She thinks if she is good and works hard, they will like her and be better than living in a group home.
She is supposed to be a helpmate. However, the Griffin family treats her like their slave, especially Mrs. Griffin. She is not a part of this family in any way.
She is mistreated by the woman, embarrassing her in front of everyone. She is a smart girl and this woman is very manipulative.
Mr. Griffin, the daughters, and the son Michael Henry, Eva Jane, and Mary Ann (so sweet) seem to be afraid of their mom. They are nice to Leah. The mom tries to be well-to-do and put on appearances in front of her friends and entertains, but there is something off about her. She is evil, full of hatred and jealousy.
No matter how hard Leah works cooking, cleaning, and serving her master's friends, nothing she does is good enough. She does not even allow her to attend school, so she is stuck in a small bedroom like a closet and treated like a slave.
Mrs. Griffin has a manipulative plan in mind. She goes behind her back with a local Dr. Moses, heading up the Eugenics and sterilization program for young women in North Carolina.
Leah is distraught when she learns what happened to her without her knowledge or consent. Her letters are kept from her, and she cannot communicate with Jesse.
And then, the final family secret is revealed, which is a shocker. Will Leah escape this horrible family and return to the beach and the people she loves? How can anyone ever compensate for the damage to a vibrant young woman.? Forgiveness and forgetting are two different things.
WOW! A haunting tale of how the actions of government agencies ruined the innocent lives of women and their future. A searing and ultimately hopeful novel about the injustices and the importance of learning from history.
Transporting, heartfelt, and atmospheric.
Beautifully rendered, a powerful and unforgettable novel that will linger long after you finish reading. With well-developed characters, I enjoyed the conclusion of Holden Beach, 2006, brimming with hope after tragedy.
What a resilient, strong, and powerful young woman full of heart and love. A spellbinding coming-of-age tale of loss, hope, and perseverance. Leah will steal your heart with strength and courage, gripping you from page one to the end.
Susan Bennett, the audiobook narrator, is utterly captivating, delivering an award-winning performance. You will want to listen more than once. Highly recommend the audiobook!
One of my "TOP Books of 2023" and a contender for debut of the year!
As a North Carolina native, I adore novels set in NC with its idyllic coastal and mountain areas—and some of the "best authors" reside in the famous Tarheel state. The author has quickly been added to my favorite author list.
The writing is stunning, and I was utterly captivated by the lush descriptions and the author's lyrical prose. A heart-wrenching page-turner, I read in two sittings. I loved Leah/Jesse. You will be outraged at the devastation of these young women. Thank you for giving these women a voice for often a forgotten untold part of our history.
Meticulously researched, it is heartbreaking the number of useless sterilizations completed - 7,000 in NC and in Mecklenburg county 485, which is 3 times of any other NC county. Very sad when a love of the sea is a reason to question one's sanity.
Inspired by the author's family history, an ideal book club pick. I thoroughly enjoyed the Conversation with the Author and the Reading Group Guide (included). A wealth of information is included.
THE LAST CAROLINA GIRL is perfect for fans of Diane Chamberlain's Necessary Lies, Dolen Perkins-Valdez's Take My Hand (two favorites), Kristy Woodson Harvey, Where the Crawdads Sing, and The Girls in the Stilt House.
Stay tuned for my upcoming #AuthorElevatorSeries Interview with Meagan where we go behind the scenes of the book and this talented author, on pub date, March 28, 2023.
@JudithDCollins | #JDCMustReadBooks
Pub Date: March 28, 2023
My Rating: 5 STARS ++