One of my biggest hopes for The Last Carolina Girl is that it would spark conversation and discussion, whether it’s about Leah and the story itself, or the backdrop of eugenics. If your book club has chosen to read it, thank you very much! I hope you’ll find the questions, recipes, playlist, and guide to eugenics helpful for your gathering and discussion. Be sure to snap pictures, share them on social media, and tag me (@mchurchwriter on Instagram and Facebook)! Many thanks and enjoy!
Interested in having me visit your book club either via video chat or in-person (depending on scheduling, location, etc)? Please use my contact form to drop me a note and see if I’m available for your meeting.
If you’d like a downloadable, printable guide, click here.
Questions for The Last Carolina Girl
- What role does nature play in Leah’s life? How does it set her apart from the other characters in the story?
- Describe Leah and Jesse’s friendship. How are the characters similar? What sets them apart? How does their relationship flourish over the years?
- Early on, we learn Leah’s daddy wanted “more” for his daughter. What do you think that means? How does this idea affect Leah? Does this idea of “more” change over the course of the novel?
- At the end of chapter four, Leah says of Maeve, “But part of her surviving was finding family. She had chosen me, but right then I had nothing for her. And in that regard, the two of us became kindred spirits, two strays without a place to call home.” How are Leah and Maeve similar throughout the story?
- Imagine you are Leah and you arrive at the Griffin house- hold. What questions would you have? What would be your first instinct: trying to fit in with the family or trying to get back to the Barnas?
- How would you describe Leah’s relationship with the Griffin children? How do you believe they view her?
- What do you make of Mrs. Griffin? Where do you think her deep resentment for Leah comes from? How does it connect to the expectation of women in society at that time?
- Why do you think Mrs. Griffin uses Leah as a helpmate instead of letting Leah continue her education? How does Mrs. Griffin try to present herself and her family to others?
- Why do you think Mrs. Griffin ultimately decides to involve Dr. Foster in Leah’s life? What was her excuse?
- Near the end, Leah says, “I guess that’s the thing about coming home; it’s not the home that’s changed, it’s the person coming back who has.” What do you think Leah’s return home was like? Have you ever experienced a similar sentiment?
- What parallels can you draw between Dr. Foster and the eugenics board, and body autonomy today?
- Leah is a poor orphan who prefers the wild to societal norms. How does that set her up for being a candidate for forced sterilization? How does Mrs. Griffin’s views of society justify her actions?
- What does Leah ultimately learn about home and family over the course of the novel?
- What do you think the conversation between Leah and Jesse looked like around the traumas she faced in the Griffin household? How would you approach that conversation?
To put myself into the the correct timeframe, I listened to a lot of music while writing The Last Carolina Girl. You can find my playlist on Spotify with over three-and-a-half hours of music! It’s the perfect background for your book club discussion…not that I expect you to talk for over three hours.
Reader’s Guide to Eugenics
WHAT IS EUGENICS?
“Eugenics” means well-born or well-bred. The intention is to “breed out” undesirable traits to create a better, carefully selected, and superior gene pool.
The eugenics movement took shape in the United States in the early 1900s. In 1927, the Supreme Court (Buck v. Bell) ruled to uphold a state’s right to forcibly sterilize a person. Eugenicists used Carrie Buck, a 17-year-old girl who had been raped and sent to the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, to legitimize state-mandated sterilization. The ruling was a victory for the America’s eugenics movement and a cause for the creation of state eugenics boards.
Within the United States, minority women, immigrants, the physically and mentally ill, and the poor were sterilized at the highest rates. Some patients were not fully educated about the procedure they were undergoing. The truth was sometimes hidden from them and labeled as unspecified “medical necessity,” “pelvic disease,” or even appendectomy.
HOW WIDE-SPREAD AND KNOWN WAS THIS MOVEMENT?
The practice didn’t stop with the United States. Nazis looked at the American program and used it as inspiration for its cleansing of “genetically inferior” races.
In the United States, the practice became so mainstream that advocates disseminated propaganda through brochures, posters, advertisements, and more. At fairs, they held “better baby” and “fitter family” contests where contestants were judged on desirable traits, in an effort to educate the public about raising a better and healthier breed of humans.
HOW MANY PEOPLE WERE AFFECTED?
Between 1907 and 1983, an estimated 60,000-70,000 Americans were victims of state-mandated sterilization. Including the author’s great Aunt Virginia—a sweet, kind woman, but because a state facility labeled her feebleminded in adolescence, they sterilized her and took from her the ability to have her own children.
WHAT WAS NORTH CAROLINA’S ROLE?
North Carolina sterilized more than 7,000 people. In the novel, the author chose to send Leah to live in Matthews because that town is located in Mecklenburg county which sterilized three times the rate of any other NC county.
While the NC state eugenics board was formed in 1933, it wasn’t disbanded until 1974. The state began making reparations in 2013 when it allocated $10 million to be split among living victims.
SURELY, IT’S OVER NOW. RIGHT?
In the 1960s, sentiment toward forced sterilization shifted as attitudes toward marginalized groups changed. By the end of the 20th century, legal sterilization ended.
But remnants and sentiments persist yet today. Here’s only a short sampling from recent years:
- Between 2006 and 2010, California sterilized 148 female prisoners, according to a 2013 report from the Center for Investigative Reporting.
- In 2014, a Republican Arizona state senator was forced to resign after he publicly called for the sterilization of women on public assistance.
- In 2015, the AP reported that Nashville prosecutors were making sterilizations part of plea negotiations with female defendants.
- In 2020, a whistleblower claimed that an ICE facility for immigrants in Georgia had performed hysterectomies without informed consent.
CAN I READ MORE ABOUT EUGENICS?
Yes! Here are a variety of titles and genres that discuss eugenics:
- Better for all the World: The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and America’s Quest for Racial Purity by Harry Bruinius
- Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilizations of Carrie Buck by Adam Cohen
- Necessary Lies by Diane Chamberlain
- Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life by Lulu Miller