First Line: The boy shouldn't have been in the cave.
A small Nevada town is stunned when a young boy stumbles into a fire station to report finding a burned body out in the desert. When the body is identified as local math teacher Adam Merkel, his colleague is left searching for answers.
I always classify the books I review because I realize that people like to know what genre the book belongs to. I call The Distant Dead a "literary mystery" for the simple reason that it transcends the genre.
There are two main voices in this story: a middle school social studies teacher named Nora Wheaton, and Sal Prentiss, the lonely boy who found Adam Merkel's body as he was walking through the desert to the school bus stop. As we slowly begin to learn what really happened to Merkel, one thing becomes crystal clear: author Heather Young has created some rare and brilliant character studies. Why are they rare? Because they have you feel empathy for all the characters-- even the ones you don't like.
There's a reason why this small Nevada town is called Lovelock ("Lock your love in Lovelock!" as the billboard proclaims): all the people we come to know are locked in the town because of love, and that's not necessarily a good thing. Of them all, Nora Wheaton resonated the most with me, probably because we both have wanderlust and know what it's like to feel trapped: "...but when she saw the WELCOME TO IDAHO sign something inside her opened. She loved that they would go somewhere else the next summer, and the summer after that, every trip widening the world a little more."
The Distant Dead is a compelling mystery-- I had to know what really happened to Adam Merkel and what would happen to Nora and the young boy Sal-- but it's such a sad tale that I had to read it a bit at a time, letting one section be absorbed into my system before continuing to the next. But although my pace was slow, it was sure. This is a story that stuck with me even when I wasn't reading it. I kept finding myself thinking about the characters Young created, and I always returned to the book with the hope that, somehow, someway, things would go right. I highly recommend this sad, extraordinary tale.
The Distant Dead by Heather Young
William Morrow © 2020
Hardcover, 352 pages
Literary Mystery, Standalone
Source: Purchased at The Poisoned Pen.