The Gone DeadFiction
Reviewed By Abby Manzella
- Ecco (2019)
- 304 pages
“So this place is all longing and water and ghosts.” This elegiac description of the Mississippi Delta establishes a setting for The Gone Dead where the past and the present interact. I was looking forward to this atmosphere of mossy trees, yearning, and secrecy when I picked up Chanelle Benz’s first novel, but I wasn’t expecting its deeply affecting cultural commentary. It turns out that Benz knows how to propel readers forward with a dramatic plot while letting those readers linger in the craft of her words and the racial terrorism of our society.
In this Southern Gothic mystery, a young, biracial woman named Billie James, returns to Greendale, Mississippi from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania after the death of her grandmother. She inherits her grandmother’s home, which has “pass[ed] from her father to her mother, then to her mother’s mother, and now that Gran has passed, to her.” This ungainly movement of ownership rights back and forth across the generations reveals the untimely deaths that left Billie orphaned as a girl. This unnatural order of events speaks to a larger sense of how time is not just a progressive march forward. As Billie soon discovers, the past is never dead—to paraphrase another Mississippian author—and, as the title reminds, we see that even the dead are never gone, when Billie starts to dig into the much earlier death of her father, the poet Cliff James, from thirty years prior.
She begins with the facts as they have been told to her: “One summer night in 1972, when she was four years old, her father was walking in the woods when he fell and hit his head. He died while she was asleep in the house.” Yet almost immediately this version is complicated when Billie finds out that on that same night, she herself went missing even though she doesn’t remember it. From then on, she is on a mission to find more answers. Although her father’s death is deemed an accident, Billie begins studying it like a cold case.
The story investigates elements particular to Mississippi and then expands to include much about African American history more generally. Dr. Melvin Hurley, an academic who is deeply invested in the Black Arts Movement and Billie’s father’s poetry, is a helpful stand-in to share information about political figures like Shirley Chisholm and Angela Davis, and literary ones like Ishmael Reed, Marita Bonner, and James Baldwin. Such stories are not limited to one figure, however. Uncle Dee explains that his namesake, DeHart Hubbard, was the first African American to win a gold medal, even before Jesse Owens. When she was alive, Billie’s grandmother even spoke about the forced sterilizations of black women, which were nicknamed “Mississippi appendectomies.” Benz plants historical references throughout the text that touch upon important figures and issues from convict labor-leasing to the lack of access to the G.I. Bill for African Americans returning from World War II.
Because Billie was mostly raised by her white, medievalist mother, we also get a historical view into white dominant culture beyond even the United States and far into Europe’s Middle Ages. In this way, we learn about topics as wide-ranging as French political sovereignty, the Little Ice Age, and fairy tales. Although this history occasionally feels forced, these medieval elements, combined with an awareness of race and the South in particular, add to the book’s melancholic mood. Benz intertwines these ideas to show that stories about a European past should not be segregated from knowledge about African American history and family, which Billie seeks to recover. And even though the Southern Gothic is its own genre tied to the region’s history, in Benz’s novel it stems from a more generalized notion of the Gothic that traces its gloomy milieu to a dismal imaging of the Middle Ages.
Benz uses the bleak, violent atmosphere of the Southern Gothic to expose the romantic notion of an idyllic, agrarian South as a deceit that is predicated upon racial injustice. Much has had to be repressed, and in the Southern Gothic the horror is released so that all can see what has been there all along. In small ways, the seemingly contained historical traumas seep out of the novel at unexpected times. For instance, when Billie’s town of Philadelphia is mistaken for the one in Mississippi and not Pennsylvania, this mis-placement is also the town where three Civil Rights activists—James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner—were pulled over to the side of the road and murdered. If the reader misses the connection, Billie’s mother brings up the murders when she talks about the risks of her own Civil Rights advocacy.
In this novel, we find the medieval more directly in the text than in most American Gothics because of Billie’s mother’s research, but it extends to Billie’s thinking as well, seen when she describes one minor character as having “the look of a man who has had something gone bad inside: miasma, an evil smell thought to cause the Black Death, a rot that corrupted the air.” The medieval elements of death and rot are then found in the spaces themselves. Billie goes to a building named the Avalon, recalling the Arthurian myth, to see where her father spent his time. It has long-since closed and is collapsing—“This place reminds her of a low tide when the sea has been sucked out and the skeletons of the deep are on display.” This space both takes on the atmosphere of the Gothic and reminds about the specifics of the Mississippi Delta, which is affected by tides that conceal the death within.
Even with the harsh realities presented in the novel, there is a love of place for those who fight against racial violence or try to live benevolently within it. For instance, Lola feels that “the stillness of the fields, the folks out on the porches, Nana’s crooked voice drowning out the radio, pretending like every black woman can sing, is love.” Therefore, with its gripping mystery set alongside a beautiful rendering of what home means, The Gone Dead has wide appeal. In this novel about the ongoing pursuit of justice, the dead can speak. Billie’s father writes about this need for witnessing, even belatedly, in his poetry:
I came back because we did not know
your name your names all the names
in the river in the ground
those who never got to know that
somebody, heirs of their body, would come back
Cliff’s poem becomes Billie’s quest and the reader’s as well.
Abby Manzella is a writer and scholar who lives in Columbia, Missouri. She has recently written for sites such as Literary Hub, the Rumpus, and Kenyon Review as well as for newspapers like the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Minneapolis Star Tribune, and Boston Globe. Her book Migrating Fictions: Gender, Race, and Citizenship in U.S. Internal Displacements was named by Choice Reviews as an Outstanding Academic Title.