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The Weight of the Past

A review of Chanelle Benz’s The Gone Dead, an openhearted story about race and reckoning.

Their children came here to sweat out the demons that are carried in the body.” – The Gone Dead

In Chanelle Benz’s debut novel, she asks us to consider our physical and intangible inheritances and what demons could be lurking within them. In doing so, Benz weaves a powerful tale of reckoning, both amongst the characters and the readers themselves. The Gone Dead steals your attention instantly with mystery and suspense, but keeps it throughout the novel with an unapologetically honest story of family, justice and the South.

Billie James, a grant writer from Philadelphia, leads us back to the Mississippi Delta. At four years old, her father, an influential black poet, died, spurring her departure from the South. She has now returned to inherit her father’s home and the secluded site of his death. As she unpacks her new life, a varied cast of characters emerges, all seeming to know more about her past than Billie herself. When she discovers that she was reported missing the night her father died, Billie questions who to trust. With help and hindrance from cousins, uncles and neighbors, Billie begins to piece together her family’s past. Facts are unearthed, pasts are presented and demons are revealed; quickly Billie realizes she might have inherited more than just a rundown house.

Benz seamlessly deposits us in the Delta, with her precise painting of both the scenery and the culture. The chapter-changing narrators give the reader subtle glimpses into each of the characters’ lives and the truths they believe, but each perspective manages to keep the story grounded and focused on Billie. While struggling to find out who she is, Billie emerges as an arresting and powerful heroine.

Through openhearted storytelling, The Gone Dead illustrates the racism still present in our communities today. With the father’s death set shortly after the Civil Rights Movement, Benz casts a light onto the injustices that were ignored because people believed that since acts were passed, problems were solved. Additionally, Billie narrates from 2003, creating a striking comparison for the reader to decide what has—or often what has not— changed over 30 years.

Although The Gone Dead is a story about corruption and prejudices, it is also a novel of strength, hope and growth. Billie James defies cliched definition but undoubtedly rises as a symbol of inspiration. Her authentic characters and beautifully-crafted story makes Chanelle Benz a necessary voice in contemporary Southern literature.

The Gone Dead is one of our 2019 summer reads. View the full reading list here.

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