Isla Morley’s novel The Last Blue is an incredible story set in the mountains of Kentucky. Although it is certainly a love story, the novel is characterized by its unflinching emotional realism, and at times, the novel becomes quite harrowing and intense. Morley’s novel draws attention to the decisions people must make when their circumstances do not align with their desires, and it prompts us to consider what we might do, or to reflect on what we have done, in the face of such tensions.
There are several chapters that take place in 1972, but the story really begins in 1937, when Clayton Havens arrives in Chance, Kentucky, as a photographer for a New Deal agency intended to fight rural poverty. He is accompanied by a writer named Massey, and together, they have a mission: to gather photos and stories of folks “who are on times hard enough to use a little government assistance but not hard enough as to be beyond all help.”
Because Massey is in pursuit of a juicier story, the pair follows an obscure lead into the woods, and when Havens is bitten by a snake, the men are taken in by the Buford family. The Bufords have two adult children, Levi and Jubilee, who were born with a condition which gives their skin a blue tint. The people of the town have forced the family into isolation and persecuted them relentlessly, and Levi’s relationship with the preacher’s daughter is drawing even more hateful attention. Massey wants to publish a story about the family, but Havens is captivated by Jubilee and promises that he will not photograph the family without their consent. Massey’s commitment to the story causes other conflicts, adding another layer to the novel’s character dynamics.
Havens’s relationship with Jubilee develops alongside rising tensions in town, and at first, it seems like the novelty of the situation and emotional turmoil may be somewhat responsible for their interest in one another. But once his snake bite is healed and Massey’s story is written, the pair realizes that they will soon be separated and must choose how to proceed. Both Jubilee and Havens are adults, and they address the complexity of their circumstances with caution and reason, but the novel’s emotional weight comes from how at odds their feelings are with their reality. They want to be together, and readers want them to be together, but can they really?
The drama is heightened by the portion of the story taking place in 1972, where Havens is dealing with the arrival of a stranger who has a photo of the Buford family. Havens tries to get the young man to leave, but we do not learn why Havens is so adamant or who the stranger is until later. These sections benefit the story in a variety of ways, but they are particularly helpful in allowing us to see how Jubilee has affected Havens’ life over time.
When Havens and Jubilee are not together on the page, we see how they think about one another. Both of them struggle with memory, and they hope that photographs will help them remember, even though they know that a photograph can capture only a fleeting moment. As Havens explains, “People always say photographs don’t lie, but they do. They omit, and omission is much more devious than an outright lie.” Jubilee understands and expands this idea, saying, “You’d have to take many pictures […], from many different positions, to depict it as it truly is.” In some ways, this variety of angles is provided by Morley’s novel, which shows the connection between Havens and Jubilee in different times and places to better illustrate love as it truly is.
Morley expertly reveals the ways that relationships develop and disintegrate in the face of hardship. She draws on the real medical condition and history of the Blue Fugate family, but by bringing the story into the 20th century, Morley is able to touch on a wider variety of modern concerns, including photography, journalistic integrity, and prejudice. Having these other touch points within the novel allows for a greater depth of character development and thematic diversity than we might usually expect from a “love story.”
In the end, the threads of the 1972 and 1937 stories are brought together brilliantly by Morley. After carrying us through a series of emotional highs and lows, she leaves us with an ending that may not be exactly what we expected, but which is perfectly in line with the novel as a whole. As a result, The Last Blue is a novel that will stay with readers long after they turn the last page.
The Last Blue
By Isla Morley
Published May 5, 2020
Paperback August 10, 2021