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The Distant Dead

by Heather Young

The Distant Dead by Heather Young X
The Distant Dead by Heather Young
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Jun 2020, 352 pages

    Paperback:
    Aug 2021, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Norah Piehl
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Heather Young's second novel, The Distant Dead, is a complicated mystery and a portrait of generational grief, loss and despair in a small Nevada town.

The Distant Dead opens with an evocative scene. Hundreds or maybe thousands of years ago, a boy on the verge of becoming a man makes his way into a cave near his clan's settlement in the Great Basin of what is today Nevada. There, he overcomes his fear and undergoes what appears to be a transcendent experience—only to fall into obscurity, lost to his people and, perhaps, to history.

Young then abruptly shifts the scene, to the same geographic location but in the present day. Readers might initially wonder about the purpose of that opening part, and it will haunt them as they settle in to learn about the current denizens of the small town of Lovelock, Nevada, and the even smaller hardscrabble settlement of Marzen nearby. Lovelock is about to be jolted by the discovery of a brutal murder. The body of Adam Merkel, the new math teacher at Lovelock Middle School, has been found burned in the hills outside Marzen. The whole community—particularly social studies teacher Nora Wheaton—is shaken by this inexplicable violence done to an unassuming newcomer. Worst of all, Adam's body has been discovered by Sal Prentiss, a lonely, orphaned sixth grader whom Adam had taken under his wing.

In chapters narrated primarily from the points of view of Sal (starting from the first day of school and leading up to Adam's death in March) and Nora (starting with the discovery of the murder and leading up to the solving of the crime), Young effectively draws out the complexities of each character's life. Nora, who once seemed destined for a career in anthropology or archaeology, instead came back to Lovelock to care for her alcoholic father after the tragic death of her golden boy older brother. Sal, it turns out, is no stranger to death either. He discovered his mother's deceased body a year earlier; a sympathetic volunteer firefighter made it look like her passing was due to heart failure, but even young Sal knows better—his mother had grown addicted to opiates and died of a heroin overdose. Now Sal himself is engaging in risky behaviors in an attempt to please his new guardians, his mother's brothers.

Both Sal's and Nora's stories bear parallels to Adam's; it turns out this man, who struggled to effectively apply his quiet passion for math to the teaching of it, also carried his share of tragedies. These common threads inspire Nora to mount her own investigation into Adam's death and, eventually, to form her own relationship with the motherless Sal, who shares her fascination with lost civilizations. Adam's story is perhaps the most heartwrenching of all, as readers come to know a deeply flawed and wounded man who never ceased to want to mentor his students and to inspire them to love the beauty of patterns in mathematics.

The stories of love and loss—mostly centered on issues of addiction and substance abuse—that Young recounts in her novel are, perhaps, indicative of countless other stories that go untold or overlooked every day. By framing Lovelock's tragedies, its generational legacies of loss and broken trust, within an archaeological timescale, Young grants her characters both dignity and a place on the broader human stage, a reminder that countless generations have loved and lost before us, and that—with any luck—future generations will find meaning and significance in what we leave behind as well.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in July 2020, and has been updated for the September 2021 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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