A father dies mysteriously, and his daughter, too young to remember what she saw—if she saw anything—is whisked away. It takes another death to bring Billie James back to Greendale, Mississippi, when her late grandmother leaves her a dog, some money and the house where her father died.
Billie’s parents—Pia, a wispy blonde who later becomes a medieval studies scholar, and Cliff, a tall, black budding poet and activist—met on a Freedom Riders bus, but their bond didn’t last. In the Delta in the 1960s, interracial relationships were frowned upon. When Cliff died in 1972 while 4-year-old Billie was visiting him, Pia came for her, and they moved on. At the start of The Gone Dead, it’s 2003, and Billie has returned to the “contradictory spell of the South,” a place she barely remembers. Billie finds a sense of purpose by traveling back roads to old haunts and showing up on the doorsteps of those her father knew. Finding out how her father died (by his hand or another’s) becomes her focus, though the divide between white and black, wealthy and poor—still as stark and confounding as ever—frustrates her search.
With an actor’s ear for dialogue and a directorial vision, Chanelle Benz creates characters and scenes like a playwright. Her debut novel skillfully reveals and also conceals, building tension within her characters and between the past and the present that is left largely unresolved. Chapter by chapter, each told from a different perspective, The Gone Dead spreads out like the Mississippi River’s many tributaries, showing how one person’s life affects others, even long after death. Most of the people Billie meets—Mr. McGee, the original landowner’s son who was there the night her father died; Carlotta, one of her dad’s many girlfriends; and her Uncle Dee, who lives in a former motel and drives a truck as far away from Greendale as he can only to come back—know something they aren’t telling her. This complicated place and people that molded Cliff James and gave weight to his poetry is the same place and people that became his undoing.
Benz’s poetic words capture the weariness of a South still mired in old prejudices and transgressions but longing for freedom and redemption.