Loving the Dead and Gone

Written by Judith Turner-Yamamoto
Review by Fiona Alison

In 1963, young Donald Ray is killed in a rear-end collision as he is parked by his favorite fishing spot. His widow of one year, 17-year-old Darlene, is unable to dismiss her grief and move on as her family wishes. For her, Donald Ray’s essence lingers everywhere. Determined to remain connected to him, Darlene experiences her dead husband’s affection and physical love through a clandestine affair with the older, married Clayton. Darlene sees Clayton, who discovered Donald Ray’s body, as a conduit to her husband’s spirit.

Clayton’s failing relationship with his wife, Berta Mae, has crushed his emotional vitality, and vibrant young Darlene is a kind of forced salvation. Berta Mae, an only child, has remained beyond her mother Aurilla’s affection her whole life, and Donald Ray’s death breaks open old wounds as Aurilla’s long-buried loves and losses bubble to the surface, and her uncomfortable relationship with her daughter is explained. It is Darlene’s brief encounter with Aurilla which breaks the spell, finally enabling Darlene to move on, and releasing Aurilla’s son-in-law, Clayton, thereby saving her dearly beloved granddaughter from great heartache.

This literary novel of family and love is about our private mourning and grief for those who have left us, and how our dead are able to connect us with family in a way that the living cannot. Everyday scenes are impressively painted, everything blurred by the heat-hazy steaminess of the American South, the exhausting never-ending labor of farm life. The author takes us on a moving journey through ordinary lives filled with complexity and heartbreak. Poignant and tragic, in places a difficult read, the novel is a passionate reminder that the darkness we hold within can threaten to destroy what truly matters, yet the author brings her novel to an uplifting close.