Here on Corsets, Cutlasses, and Candlesticks, we’re always pleased and proud to herald in another historical novel. Today we celebrate the release of one of our guest bloggers, Courtney McKinney-Whitaker’s THE LAST SISTER (Young Palmetto Books), which received a Kirkus starred review. Congrats Courtney!
Set during the Anglo-Cherokee War (1758–61), The Last Sister traces a young woman’s journey through grief, vengeance, guilt, and love in the unpredictable world of the early American frontier. After a band of fellow settlers fakes a Cherokee raid to conceal their murder of her family, seventeen-year-old Catriona “Catie” Blair embarks on a quest to report the crime and bring the murderers to justice, while desperately seeking to regain her own sense of safety.
This journey leads Catie across rural South Carolina and through Cherokee territory—where she encounters wild animals, physical injury, privation, British and Cherokee leaders, and an unexpected romance with a young lieutenant from a Scottish Highland regiment—on her path to a new life as she strives to overcome personal tragedy.
The Anglo-Cherokee War erupted out of tensions between British American settlers and the Cherokee peoples, who had been allies during the early years of the French and Indian War. In 1759 South Carolina governor William Henry Lyttelton declared war on the Cherokee nation partly in retaliation for what he perceived as unprovoked attacks on backcountry settlements.
Catie’s story challenges many common notions about early America. It also presents the Cherokee as a sovereign and powerful nation whose alliance was important to Britain and addresses the complex issues of race, class, and ethnicity that united and divided the British, the Cherokee, the Scottish highlanders, and the Scottish lowlanders, while it incorporates issues of power that led to increased violence toward women on the early American frontier.
Have you always been interested in American history? What drew you to this particular time?
In elementary school, I read a lot of books set in the colonial period, including, memorably, Johnny Tremain and The Witch of Blackbird Pond, which remain on my list of books that most influenced me. I had several American Girl dolls (I think I was among their first customers back in the late 1980s/early 1990s), but Felicity, the character who lives in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1774, was my favorite. My husband and I have been visiting Colonial Williamsburg on a regular basis since 2003 because it’s a good central meeting point for a lot of family. The rest of the family wants to find somewhere else, but I secretly hope we don’t. How could anyone get tired of Duke of Gloucester Street? It’s called Duke of Gloucester Street. That’s so cool.
I grew up in South Carolina, where most of The Last Sister is set, and it always bugged me that New England got all the good colonial-era stories. See above, I love(d) colonial-era stories. When I moved north, I realized there’s a strong perception that Southern history started in 1861 and ended in 1865 and that we all live in Charleston or New Orleans, which isn’t true, obviously. Catie’s frontier world is a far cry from the way Hollywood stereotypes South Carolina, which has a much more complex history than we usually get pop culture credit for. The backcountry frontier South isn’t familiar territory for most readers, which makes writing about it both a joy and a challenge.
Here on CCC we are always interested in other hist fic author’s process, in particular with research. How do you keep track of your research? Notecards? Computer files? Notebooks?
I’m a very tactile learner, which means that as a researcher I need to be able to physically touch and organize the information. I wish I could save more paper and use all those cool computer programs that are supposed to streamline my research, but to stay organized I need to print things and organize them in folders. I often handwrite my research notes because I’m more likely to remember them that way. I’m also a sucker for pretty office supplies, so I need to find ways to justify my purchases.
Who is your favorite character in the novel? Who is your least?
I’ve been thinking about this question for several days. It’s tough to say because they all have their strong and weak points, both in their own personalities and in how successful I feel I was in writing them, so I’ll just pick on a couple.
Lieutenant-Colonel James Grant, the acting commanding officer of the 77th Highland Regiment, was probably the most fun to write. He was a real person, so I had to juggle his fictional response to Catie’s problem with the real man. He’s one of those largely forgotten figures from history who just jumps off the page once you meet him, and he was a fascinating character long before I got to him. He wasn’t the stereotypical British officer by any means, which forced me to find a way to make his, shall we say original, views and behavior believable to a modern audience that might make certain assumptions about how a British officer of the time thought and felt.
I don’t especially like the minor character of Sam Murray, the unfortunate victim of the one graphic scalping scene. He strikes me as weak, as a follower, as someone who lacks the courage of his convictions—even if those convictions are problematic at best. He’s a waffler, which is what gets him killed. There were characters I hated to lose, but he’s not one of them.
Do you have a favorite line in the book you’d like to share?
When Catie is comforting a sick toddler at Fort Loudoun, she thinks, “Why are so many of the songs we sing to children about death?”
The book’s title is a reference to the third fate in Greek mythology, the one who cuts the threads of human lives. Death is a huge theme in the book, as it would be almost by default in any book set in this time and place, where the reality of history is that many people died—of violence, of disease, of infection, of accidents—and that they were often quite young, especially by our standards, when they did. If my characters often seem callous or matter-of-fact about death, it’s because they expect it. They take it for granted, as we take it for granted that people will die of old age.
I spent much of my time as an academic studying children’s literature and the history of women and children, and this insistence on talking to children about death through stories and songs always struck me. Often the message is disguised, but it’s as if through most of human history, the first thing we’ve wanted to tell children is that life is only for a little while, something that makes sense if you think of the very high mortality rates people dealt with before antibiotics were widely available.
Many authors like to immerse themselves in their character’s time, be it trying on period clothes, making vintage recipes, or visiting the places where their character might have walked. Did you do anything of these things to get closer to your story?
I grew up in the area where The Last Sister is set. When I wasn’t reading, I was playing in the woods, and sometimes I was reading in the woods. That intimate knowledge of the landscape helped a lot, and several specific places found their way into my story, like the creek bed where Catie and Jaime encounter the catamount: my brother and I used to play there, without ever meeting anything worse than a black snake. Fort Loudoun has been reconstructed on its original site, and I spent some time poking around there. That was so helpful in getting a sense of where everything was and how crowded the fort must have been when it was under siege. One of my husband’s hobbies is target shooting, and spending time with weapons similar in size and weight to those Catie would have used was helpful. Without that, I would have had no idea how much a rifle’s recoil can hurt or how awkward it is to carry something as tall as you are.
Do you have other works in process you can tell us about? If so, are you sticking with American history?
I’m querying a novel that’s a total departure from American history, but not from history as a whole. I’d love to write a companion to The Last Sister, but I haven’t started yet. I have a shelf full of books for preliminary research and a very rough idea of the plot, though.
Courtney McKinney-Whitaker grew up in Greenville, SC and now lives in Peoria, IL with her husband, young daughter, dog/officemate/boss, and cat, where she is very good about working out and eating well and very bad about procrastinating and watching too much TV. As a writer who spends most of her workday alone, she loves (is desperate) to connect with other people: check out her website, her Goodreads page, or her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter @courtneymckwhit.