“The Strange Inheritance of Leah Fern,” by Rita Zoey Chin

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

Exquisitely beautiful and eerily wise. Deeply philosophical yet full of magic. An enchanting novel with intriguing characters. Rita Zoey Chin’s The Strange Inheritance of Leah Fern (Melville House, October 2022) is all these things—and more. In other words, a work of literary excellence.

The novel begins with a disturbing scene. Leah Fern is exuberantly celebrating what she intends to be the last day of her life: her twenty-first birthday. Those elaborate plans for suicide are interrupted when a stranger knocks on her apartment door to deliver the will and the ashes of Leah’s neighbor, Essie East. This begins Leah’s journey to decipher her inheritance, to learn why a woman she only spoke to twice in her life would leave her cremains and cryptic messages in Leah’s care. It is also a journey to uncover Leah’s mother’s secrets and ultimately to forge a new path in her own life.

Chin weaves together three voices in the story: Leah’s with present action and childhood memories, Essie East’s letters to Leah, and Leah’s mother’s journal, The Book of Shadows.

Six-year-old Leah Fern works in a carnival, billed as “The Youngest and Very Best Fortune Teller in the World.” An empath, Leah can sometimes sense what other people are feeling just by touching their hands. Because she is always working, she has no opportunity to meet other children. Leah’s mother works as the carnival’s magician.

When Leah is six, her mother abandons her in the home of a kind, elderly gentleman, Edward Murphy. Both Leah and Edward are devastated by the disappearance of the woman they love, and spend their lives waiting for her return. Because Leah’s senses are often overwhelmed by human contact, she avoids intimacy. A spike necklace and belt she wears keep others at a distance. Edward quickly learns not to touch the child. He is the adult every child might wish for: one who accepts them despite peculiarities. One who doesn’t scold when a homemade rocket misfires and breaks a window. Instead, Edward helps her learn principles of aeronautics:

And then he showed her how to affix the fins so the next rocket wouldn’t break her window and they talked about things that had nothing and everything to do with their unexpected life on that little street in that little town—how pressure builds in small chambers, how a force can act upon an inert object and set it on an endless path of motion, “like the earth,” Leah said, “and the seasons.”

“Like the universe,” said Edward Murphy, “and the stars.”

A misfit, Leah excels academically and absorbs knowledge quickly. She studies biology in college. Yet after Edward’s death, Leah is truly alone and friendless.

Neighbor Essie East’s last wish is for Leah to scatter her ashes in nine significant locations along a spiral path her mother and three friends journeyed to many years in the past. In each location, Essie has left a letter with more details about Leah’s artistic mother and her little band of creative friends. Leah has never ventured far from her South Carolina home because she worried her mother might finally return and find her gone. Yet Essie’s letter tempts Leah with the opportunity to find this woman who abandoned her—or at least to learn why she never came back. Overcoming considerable fear, Leah embarks on a journey that takes her across the country, from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to Alaska to Alabama and places in between. The beauty of each setting is described in magical, evocative detail—so evocative that many readers, I suspect, will be tempted to recreate the spiral journey for themselves. In each location Leah meets strangers who bring new insights into life and how it might be lived.

In one encounter, Leah meets obnoxious men in a bar:

She thought about the men at the bar, how they’d left her no choice but to fight or flee. Why did it have to be this way, things always exerting power over other things. Rock-paper-scissors, something always beat something else. Stars absorb other stars, black holes swallow up mouthfuls of them; galaxies consume other galaxies; some twins even consume their siblings in the womb.

In another encounter, a young woman named Isabelle observes Leah’s half-shaved head and spiked necklace and belt and classifies her as “a punk”:

“I’m not a punk,” she said.

“Isabelle turned from the sky to face Leah’s profile. “What are you then?”

A magician’s daughter, Leah wanted to say. The smallest bit of air off the smallest feather of a bird. A quark. A dream no one had. “I don’t know,” she said.

This brief conversation, leaves Leah pondering her identity and place in the universe, which of course is the point of all human journeys.

Some of the journey’s greatest gifts are found in Essie’s letters as they dribble out pieces of the puzzle that is Leah’s mother Claire. In one, Essie, who is a photographer, admits how deeply she loved Claire: “I’ve spent my life studying light—its qualities of temperature, its angles, its sharpness, its softness—and she is the only person I’ve ever thought of as light personified. She was late afternoon light, warm, golden, gentle.”

While the novel contains a fortune teller, a magician, and a coven of witches, much of the story’s true magic is found in the beauty of the natural settings and in human relationships. At one point Leah wonders if magic is “like dark matter or neutrinos,” and even though it exists, “people just hadn’t figured out how to measure it yet.” Perhaps the loveliest observation of magic is found in Claire’s journal, The Book of Shadows. Claire writes of the bonds formed among the four women who undertook the cross-country journey together, the way they became a sisterhood, a coven of witches. She writes, “We’re a family now, and that, to me, is the most magical thing of all.”

Based on the biggest regret of her own life, Essie gives Leah this advice: have the courage to love. By the novel’s end, one can’t help but believe Leah will find the courage to embrace all that life offers, that she will not only follow Essie’s advice, but also her mother’s wisdom: “Why not say yes to everything?” And with that, author Rita Zoey Chin has masterfully brought us full circle from the opening scene when Leah was ready to say no to life itself.

Without a doubt, you should say yes to a journey through the pages of this lovely story.

Rita Zoey

The Strange Inheritance of Leah Fern is Rita Zoey Chin’s debut novel. She is also the author of the widely praised memoir Let the Tornado Come. She holds an MFA from the University of Maryland and is the recipient of a Katherine Anne Porter Prize, an Academy of American Poets Award, and a Bread Loaf waiter scholarship. She has taught at Towson University and currently teaches at Grub Street in Boston, as well as at retreats and conferences. Her writings have been published by Guernica, Tin House, and Marie Claire.

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