Book Review: THE GONE DEAD, Racism’s Long Legacy

The Gone Dead
Chanelle Benz

In The Gone Dead, set in 2003, Billie James inherits her father’s Mississippi Delta dilapidated shack from her grandmother and returns for the first time in thirty years. Her father Cliff, a poet and civil rights activist, had died in 1972 from an accidental fall. She was a young child staying with her father the night he died, and in speaking with denizens of the town realizes her memories are incomplete.

As she attempts to uncover the truth, she is stonewalled by the McGee family, white landowners who have long employed the Jameses as tenant farmers and domestic laborers, the sheriff’s office, and even her own uncle. But with the help of an academic writing a biography of Cliff and a woman who was dating him at the time of his death, Billie ignores warnings and threats to her personal safety in her quest to uncover what she is sure is a conspiracy around her father’s death.

The point of view shifts among a range of characters including even a shuttered juke joint, some getting a single chapter, some several. The gains of revealing information known only by that character comes at a cost of a patchwork narrative where several strands are introduced never to be discussed again or other storylines having various degrees of completion or extraneous information. For me, the result was feeling removed from the characters and events. The primary narrative, of Billie uncovering what happened to her black activist father in a small Mississippi town mired in racism was horrific, especially seeing how these attitudes persist into the present. At the same time, it’s a story familiar from other books and movies. The book is strong, though, in its style, with lovely writing and distinctive voices.

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