In an earlier post on Belinda Bauer’s terrific mystery Snap, I mentioned how much I enjoy adult novels with realistically portrayed children. Another brilliant example is Heather Young’s The Distant Dead (2020) . The story, set in a small desert town in Nevada, is told by three characters: Jake Sanchez, a volunteer fireman and driver for the local mine; Nora Wheaton, a middle-school history teacher; and Sal Prentiss, a twelve-year-old boy in Nora’s class who has lived with his two maternal uncles since his mother’s recent death.
The book begins with Nora wondering why Adam Merkel, her math-teacher colleague and a recent arrival in town, is not at work. Within hours she learns that Adam burned to death on a hilltop the day before, and his body was discovered by Sal on his morning walk to the school-bus stop. Who has killed Adam? And what was the former University of Nevada professor doing teaching middle-school math in their small town anyway?
Nora already knows that Sal Prentiss ate lunch with his math teacher every day and that Adam often gave Sal a ride back to his uncles’ isolated house. As she gets to know the boy, even bringing him home with her to meet her alcoholic father, Nora realizes how likeable and intelligent he is—but also how scared. Sal knows more about Adam’s death than he’s telling, she decides.
Yes, he does, and what he knows is disclosed to us chapter by chapter in flashbacks, as we watch Sal meet Adam on the math teacher’s first day in the classroom and grow close to him. Nora, driven by her concern for Sal and her sadness over Adam’s death, investigates the man’s past, and Jake, also worried about Sal, tries to find out more about the boy’s uncles. Everything we need to know in order to understand why and how Adam died is shown to us from different viewpoints, and the process gives us moving insights into each of the book’s protagonists in turn. We come to know the reasons Adam died and each person who was involved in his death, and yet we are still surprised at the way the tragedy slowly plays itself out to its end.
This is a dark book. Some of its characters are obsessed, others are dangerously self-deluded, and there are dire examples of selfishness, manipulation and cruelty. But it’s also a story about atonement and redemption. A Gothic novel uses darkness coyly, to entertain and titillate. This novel uses it straightforwardly, almost apologetically, as if to say, “Yes, these people have done terrible things, but they have their reasons, and it’s our job, as writer and reader, to try to understand and perhaps pity them, even if we can’t forgive them.”
In the center of it all is Sal Prentiss. Perhaps he is too wise and sensitive to be completely realistic, but he still works within the novel as a superbly drawn character, providing the compassionate eyes through which we see each damaged person in this story. His imagination can encompass a world in which the good in everyone is endlessly doing battle with evil—and sometimes even winning. He is not a figure that you’ll easily forget upon finishing this excellent mystery.
The Distant Dead was one of six books nominated for a “Best Novel” Edgar award in 2021. Heather Young’s first book, The Lost Girls (2016), which is also about children coping with the unimaginable, received a “Best First Novel” Edgar nomination.
What about you? Do you have any favorite novels featuring significant child characters? In my case, I immediately think of Ellen Foster, by Kaye Gibbons (1987), and Joanna Trollope’s Other People’s Children (1998). And, by the way, To Kill a Mockingbird doesn’t count!