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Summary and book reviews of The Distant Dead by Heather Young

The Distant Dead

by Heather Young

The Distant Dead by Heather Young X
The Distant Dead by Heather Young
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  • Published:
    Jun 2020, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Norah Piehl
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Book Summary

A young boy finds himself at the center of a murder mystery in this timely and twisty thriller from the author of the acclaimed The Lost Girls - a compelling and indelible story set in small town America that examines the burden of guilt, the bitter price of forgiveness, and the debts we owe our dead, both recent and distant.

A body burns in the high desert hills. A boy walks into a fire station, pale with the shock of a grisly discovery. A middle school teacher worries when her colleague is late for work. By day's end, when the body is identified as local math teacher Adam Merkel, a small Nevada town will be rocked to its core by a brutal and calculated murder.

Adam Merkel left a university professorship in Reno to teach middle school in Lovelock seven months before he died. A quiet, seemingly unremarkable man, he connected with just one of his students: Sal Prentiss, a lonely sixth grader who lives with his uncles on a desolate ranch in the hills. The two outcasts developed a tender, trusting friendship that brought each of them hope in the wake of tragedy. But it is Sal who finds Adam's body, charred almost beyond recognition, half a mile from his uncles' compound.

Nora Wheaton, the middle school's social studies teacher, dreamed of a life far from Lovelock only to be dragged back on the eve of her college graduation to care for her disabled father, a man she loves but can't forgive. She sensed in the new math teacher a kindred spirit--another soul bound to Lovelock by guilt and duty. After Adam's death, she delves into his past for clues to who killed him and finds a dark history she understands all too well. But the truth about his murder may lie closer to home. For Sal Prentiss's grief seems heavily shaded with fear, and Nora suspects he knows more than he's telling about how his favorite teacher died. As she tries to earn the wary boy's trust, she finds he holds not only the key to Adam's murder, but an unexpected chance at the life she thought she'd lost.

Weaving together the last months of Adam's life, Nora's search for answers, and a young boy's anguished moral reckoning, this unforgettable thriller brings a small American town to vivid life, filled with complex, flawed characters wrestling with the weight of the past, the promise of the future, and the bitter freedom that forgiveness can bring.

Excerpt
THE DISTANT DEAD

To get to Marzen from Lovelock, you took Interstate 80 thirteen miles east to the Lovelock-Unionville Road. Then you drove south through three miles of sage and sand, climbed into the foothills of the Humboldt Range, and took a nameless dirt road that forked to the right halfway up Limerick Canyon. This road rose through more hills furred with sagebrush until it ended in a small, square valley where a few dozen buildings huddled together. Only when you were upon them would you see that they sketched a town: a smattering of houses and trailers, a general store and a bar, a small school, a fire station, and a church the size and shape of three shipping containers welded together with MARZEN BAPTIST painted in red letters on one side.

Two hundred and seven people lived there. Eighty-four men, seventy-six women, and forty-seven children. Most of the men, and some of the women, worked at the open pit silver mine farther up in the hills. Their fathers had been ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

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. 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...continued

Full Review Members Only (557 words).

(Reviewed by Norah Piehl).

Media Reviews

New York Times
This book may not be packed with high-octane thrills, but it’s honestly engaging, with its appreciation for the stark beauty of a high desert landscape and its gentle treatment of underage outcasts like Absalom (Sal) Prentiss, whose discovery of chess brings joy into his life.

People
Powerful and poignant.

BookPage (starred review)
A story that begins with a horrific discovery and expands to explore the weight of familial obligation, the far-reaching devastation of drug addiction and the ways in which guilt and boredom can curdle into something much more sinister...[Young's] language is poetic, and her contemplation of the corrosiveness of suppressed emotion is both sympathetic and impatient: When will people learn?

Publishers Weekly
[M]oving...Never mind a tad too much symmetry in some of the backstories. This emotionally resonant saga, firmly rooted in the high desert hills, will keep readers turning the pages.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
[The Distant Dead] is at heart about the timelessness of human curiosity, the eternal possibility of forgiveness, and the everyday miracle of survival. Electrifying, ambitious, and crushingly beautiful.

Booklist (starred review)
Stunning...An ideal recommendation for fans of Kate Atkinson.

Author Blurb James McLaughlin, author of Bearskin
With her usual blend of inventive storytelling and gorgeous prose, Heather Young delivers big themes and a poignant coming-of-age story in this complex, page-turning mystery/thriller. Resonant and relevant, The Distant Dead kept me reading late at night, and the characters followed me around during the day, especially a precocious and unusual sixth-grade boy named Absalom who is hard to forget. As a fan of Young's debut, The Lost Girls, I found myself swept into another beautifully-crafted story that's even more suspenseful, at times more terrifying, and ultimately just as surprising. The Distant Dead is not to be missed.

Author Blurb Rene Denfeld, bestselling author of The Child Finder and The Butterfly Girl
Bright, flawless writing, wonderful characters, and a sense of pacing that ratchets up the tension—what more could you want from a thriller? I loved this book. I bet you will too.

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Beyond the Book

The Oldest Known Burial in North America: Anzick-1

Anzick child burial location in Montana The evocative prehistorical scene with which Heather Young opens The Distant Dead might be fictional but, as the narrator suggests near the end of the novel, it parallels some real-life archaeological discoveries. One of these is Anzick Boy, or Anzick-1, a Paleoindian child of one or two years old, found buried in Montana in 1968. This specimen is the earliest known burial in North America. The child was buried with more than one hundred stone and bone tools.

Interestingly, the Anzick specimen was named for the family whose land he was found on, and Sarah Anzick (who was two years old at the time of the discovery) grew up to become a genome researcher and one of the scientists who helped sequence Anzick-1's nuclear genome (the set of...

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