Review: Alexandra Grabbe on Rita Zoey Chin’s The Strange Inheritance of Leah Fern

Rita Zoey Chin’s The Strange Inheritance of Leah Fern is an enchanting coming of age story that sends us on a magical journey of discovery across the United States and Canada. This debut novel will grab you from the get-go. We meet Leah Fern, the “World’s Youngest and Very Best Fortuneteller.” Leah lives in a trailer with her mom, a magician, at Blazing Calyx Carnival. The six-year-old is pampered by the other carnival performers, including Rubberband Man, Her-Sweet, and the Bearded Lady. Leah is an empath, but she doesn’t know it yet. When Jeannie Starr tells her young daughter to pack her bags because they’re going on an adventure, Leah has no idea she will be abandoned and raised by one of her mother’s good friends, Edward Murphy. Together, they will wait for Jeannie to return. We jump 15 years and meet Leah again, now wearing a spiked collar and belt, her distinctive black hair cut short in a punk hairstyle, and still desperate for news of her mother. On her 21st birthday, Leah has been listening to Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor and preparing to end her life with pills. She has just switched her CD player to Rage Against The Machine’s second track, “Killing in the Name,” when there comes a rapping at her front door. A lawyer announces the delivery of her strange inheritance, following the death of a mysterious neighbor. The cardboard box contains Essie East’s remains, a check for $9,999.99, and a letter, the first of nine letters Leah will receive. Leah expresses surprise because she barely knows the older woman who moved into her Hilda, South Carolina, duplex a year ago, but Essie will matter in Leah’s life. We are on page 30 and the spell cast by novelist Rita Zoey Chin will continue for the next 370 pages.

The chapters related to Leah’s childhood and teenage years alternate with a description of her arduous spiraling road trip across North America in a black 1985 pickup, undertaken in pursuit of clues to Jeannie’s whereabouts. Leah’s most fervent desire is to know what happened to her mother. Essie East, who turns out to have been Jeannie’s longtime friend, will help satisfy that desire. Before dying, Essie sent a series of General Delivery letters to places with exotic names like Cosmos, MN, or Watersmet, MI, or Thunder Bay, Ontario. Will Leah make it to her next destination? Will the letters provide clues to her mother’s whereabouts? Will the two finally be reunited?

Author Rita Zoey Chin treats us to a tale of friendship, a moving love story, and a travelogue with suspense, witchcraft, a celebration of nature, and much more thrown in. The Strange Inheritance of Leah Fern pulses with the same energy as Cyndi Lauper’s music video for “Girls Just Want To Have Fun.” The razor-sharp prose shines as brightly as the gems that decorate the urn Leah will carry in her backpack from Georgia to Northern Canada to Arizona, spreading a portion of Essie’s ashes in each spot, usually on the shore of a body of water. She climbs snowdrifts and splashes through lakes to reach islands, as Essie’s letters have instructed. These letters reveal that Essie and four female friends set out on a similar journey in 1977. The five women weren’t exactly flower children, but they all created art and could be considered as belonging to the hippie generation who believed in peace, love, and personal freedom. What’s more, they identified as a “coven of witches.” In the letters, Essie shares her dreams and her regrets, as well as why the most important relationships in her life failed.

The bubble-wrapped urn itself is most unusual, “an obelisk sculpted out of quilted maple that had an almost holographic appearance.” The gems on its surface formed “a riot of color and bedazzlement.” Magic seems always present, shimmering in the background, so we are not at all surprised by the birds that flock around Leah although Edward Murphy, her guardian, cannot see them: first a Scarlet Tanager, but later crows, parrots, rose-breasted grosbeaks, owls, and magpies.

The Strange Inheritance of Leah Fern is about daring to follow one’s dream. In one of her letters, Essie advised Leah to have the “courage to love.” It’s advice Leah needed to hear. After being abandoned by her mother, she has always feared intimacy. At school, people sensed her difference, making friendships a challenge. As we follow Leah’s journey, Rita Zoey Chin intimates that Essie’s advice will save her protagonist, leaving us to finish the novel with a smile and the hope for a sequel.

The Strange Inheritance of Leah Fern, by Rita Zoey Chin. Brooklyn, New York: Melville House, October 2022. 400 pages. $17.99, paper.

Alexandra Grabbe is a freelance writer based in Arlington, MA. 

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