Sometimes characters in books seem like paper dolls with painted on smiles and personalities that are ablaze with bright but unrealistic color. In The Distant Dead by Heather Young, the characters are complex and realistic, living with broken dreams and grit sprinkled with hope.
Young Sal Prentiss walks into the fire station of his small Nevada town one morning to report that he just discovered the body of Adam Merkel, his math teacher. Merkel had been burned alive. Sal was particularly shocked because he and Merkel had developed a close relationship.
Nora Wheaton is the social studies teacher, and about the only person with whom Merkel had connected. She grew up in the town but had hoped to use her archeology degree to get away from Nevada and see the world. Unfortunately, she is forced to care for her aging and ill father, who still mourns the death of a son.
Nora wants to find out the truth about Merkel’s death, not in small part because she feels sorry for Sal, who lost his mother to a drug overdose and lives with his strange and creepy uncles. As she continues to dig, she learns unexpected truths about Merkel, about Sal, about his mother, and about his uncles. She also learns that happiness can come from unexpected places.
I enjoyed the story about small town secrets, both good and bad. The characters were interesting and believable. The ending was hopeful, though the book was fairly dark. I will definitely read the author’s debut novel, The Lost Girls.