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YA Favorite Jennifer Dugan’s Queer Thriller Debut Is a Lesson in Trauma

I’m not usually one for thrillers or slasher stories, but when I found out Jennifer Dugan was coming out with a queer YA with both of those themes, I put aside my squeamish feelings to read The Last Girls Standing. The story definitely delivered on those themes — but not in the way you might expect.

Sloan and Cherry are the sole survivors of a mass murder at a summer camp where they were set to be counselors. Before the campers even showed up, a man in a crudely carved fox mask went on a murderous rampage, and somehow, these two girls survived.

Like I said, slasher movies aren’t usually my vibe, but I found myself seriously missing the slasher element of The Last Girls Standing. The story picks up after the murders, and so we only get them in flashbacks. I think throwing us into the action as the murders were happening would have given the story a sense of urgency it lacks. The flashbacks are some of the most interesting parts of the book, and I found myself craving to know more about how the murders happened: the smell of the blood, the sound of the screams in the woods, the way Sloan’s own breath echoed in her ears while she waited to die.

Even though the book has thriller vibes, it’s really much more about trauma and how surviving something traumatic can affect the rest of your life. In that sense, it gave me big Yellowjackets vibes. It’s less about what happened and more about the results.

Sloan is suffering from some severe PTSD and has blocked out pretty much all memories of the night she was almost murdered. Her mother has forced her into therapy, and it’s not really working at first, mainly because of how resistant Sloan is to even trying. Her mom just wants her to be “normal” again, and while we don’t get to know much about Sloan before the massacre, I wonder if she was ever actually their definition of normal. Of course, we all know that living through a traumatic event fundamentally changes you, but given the way she reacts to the trauma, it makes me think there is something much deeper at play here.

Cherry on the other hand, is almost too okay after what happened. She is incredibly rational about everything. Cherry is the stabilizing force for the very fragile Sloan. Her memories are fully intact, and as a result, she is the one Sloan relies on to remind her what happened. If it ever feels like a burden, Cherry never gives an indication she feels that way — in fact, she relishes that she’s the one Sloan has to depend on. And she’s always there to catch Sloan when she falls. She rescues her from therapy, from her family, from the voices in her own head. It is a lot of pressure for a teenage girl, and I would have liked to see a little more about how Cherry feels being the strong one. There’s so much focus on Sloan and her fragility; I think there should have been a little bit more about Cherry and the potential she had to fall apart herself.

The relationship between Sloan and Cherry can best be described as codependent, but of course it is! If they’re the only two people to survive a massacre, what else could you possibly expect? If the murders hadn’t happened, they likely would have had a very sweet fleeting summer romance. But then they become the last girls standing, and everything changes. Cherry climbs into Sloan’s window every night so they can sleep curled up together. They have a shorthand with each other, because no one will ever know what it’s like to be survivors. I think Dugan did a good job balancing the headiness of being infatuated with your first girlfriend and the extreme trauma of surviving.

Cherry is the holder of the memories of that night, so it also doesn’t surprise me that Sloan clings to her the way she does. Sloan is desperate to know what exactly happened to them that night, and Cherry is the only one with any sort of clear idea. It feels like the root of their codependency starts with that more than even how much they liked each other before the massacre. Sloan needs Cherry to fill in the blanks, and because she is on such a quest to figure it all out, she needs to have unlimited access to her. At the same time, Cherry becomes a refuge when it all becomes too much.

The girls find out that the person who committed the murders was a part of a doomsday cult, and Sloan becomes obsessed with knowing everything she can to try and recover her memories and begin to make sense of what happened to her. As a reader, I felt like there was too much time spent on the cult and their beliefs and rituals, but from a storytelling point of view, I understand the necessity of it. Sloan is so desperate to put together all the pieces of her life and what happened that night that she falls head first into the rabbit hole of this group to make sense of it all. After a while, it’s hard to tell if it’s a quest for knowledge or something else. She becomes so obsessed with the group that it makes her paranoid and skittish.

Her obsession with the cult puts an understandable strain on her relationship with Cherry. Cherry is just as desperate to put the past behind them as Sloan is to keep digging it up. There’s a constant push-pull between the two of them as Sloan descends deeper into the madness of the world of the cult and Cherry fights harder to pull her out of it.

Family and parents are another big theme in The Last Girls Standing. Sloan was adopted at the age of four and has vague memories of her birth parents. Those memories and that connection make for a big part of the story as she tries to parse out which memories are real and which ones may be in her imagination. Her adoptive mother is obsessed with wellness and probably doesn’t believe in mental illness, which is why she pushes Sloan so hard to get back to normal. In reality, her desire to have Sloan “fixed” pushes the girl further into the well of desperation. Cherry is very close to her mom, and her dad died several years before the start of the story. Her dad is a figure that looms over the girls and Sloan’s mind as her PTSD gets worse. It’s clear Cherry still has some unresolved trauma from his death that is only made more complicated by Sloan’s constant probing.

Sloan believes there could be some sort of connection between her birth parents, Cherry’s dad and the cult, and trying to put those pieces together pushes her further and further to the edge of stability. Her need to prove something overtakes her and puts her into some truly terrifying situations, including a showdown with the murderer.

It’s hard to write about certain parts of The Last Girls Standing without spoiling it too much. The thriller element of the story really picks up in the last two chapters of the book. I was so tired and needed to put the book down, but I couldn’t sleep until I finished it. I will say, the ending is equal parts unexpected and unsurprising. There is only one way the story can end, and while I kind of saw it coming, it didn’t happen quite the way I thought it would.

The Last Girls Standing by Jennifer Dugan is out now.

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Sa'iyda Shabazz

Sa'iyda is a writer and mom who lives in LA with her partner, son and 3 adorable, albeit very extra animals. She has yet to meet a chocolate chip cookie she doesn't like, spends her free time (lol) reading as many queer romances as she can, and has spent the better part of her life obsessed with late 90s pop culture.

Sa'iyda has written 116 articles for us.

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