Gone Too Long is Lori Roy’s fifth novel – and her best, which is saying something. The Southern mystery, set near Stone Mountain, Georgia, in the modern day, follows and then transcends a pattern she developed with Bent Road, Until She Comes Home, Let Me Die in His Footsteps and The Disappearing.
People often disappear in Roy’s Southern settings, which become characters in their own right. Dusty dirt roads, swampy lakes, towering oaks dripping with moss: in Roy’s world nature never smiles. The acorns feel dangerous.
Nothing supernatural has to happen in a Roy novel to make the work suspenseful and creepy. In a Stephen King story, the monsters lurking in the shadows might turn out to be vampires or rabid clowns. For Roy there is evil aplenty in the dark heart of a human being.
This summary is from the back cover:
On a day a black truck rattles past her house and a Klan flier lands in her front yard, ten-year-old Beth disappears from her Simmonsvile, Georgia home. Armed with skills honed while caring for an alcoholic mother, she must battle to survive the days and months ahead.
Seven years later, Imogene Coulter is burying her father – a Klan leader she has spent her life distancing herself from – and trying to escape the memories his funeral evokes. But Imogene is forced to confront secrets long held by Simmonsville and her own family when, while clearing out her father’s apparent hideout on the day of his funeral, she finds a child. Young and alive, in an abandoned basement, and behind a door that only locks from the outside.
My response to that description is horripilation, the fancy term for those goose bumps goose-stepping up my arms.
Roy favors a narrative device in which each chapter bears the name of a particular character: Beth, Imogene, Tillie. In a sophisticated and compelling move, some of the action in chapters occurs “today” and others “before.” These are no simple flashbacks. They are textured by a nifty shift of tense, so that events from the past are conveyed by a first-person narrator speaking in the present tense. Events from “today” – flipping the switch – are conveyed in the third-person and in the past tense.
If that feels too tricky for you, consider that, so engrossed in the mystery was I, that I didn’t notice the technique until a second reading.
Full disclosure, Lori Roy and I are pals who met at the Banyan Coffee Shop. We have appeared together at writing workshops and bookstores. I admit a bias. On the other hand, Roy is the only successful novelist I have known as a friend. She has let me inside her process, and that has allowed me to grow as a writer and a teacher.
The KKK, long associated with Stone Mountain, Georgia, just outside of Atlanta, features prominently in Gone Too Long. As interludes to the story, Roy drops in short expository passages about the history and influence of the Klan, along with attempts to root it out by right-minded Southerners. You can burn or poison a hillside of kudzu, but it finds a way to grow back. So it is with the individuals and institutions in America that have fostered racial intolerance and terrorism.
We don’t have to travel back in time to find the hate. It raised its ugly head not long ago in Charlottesville, Virginia, and it has its viral moments on the Internet. Some would say you can find it in state legislatures, maybe even the nation’s capital.
Gone Too Long – beyond its fascinating mystery – stands as a reminder that there are still those among us, some wearing suits and ties, who long for the return of the white hood and the burning cross.
[Roy Peter Clark is senior scholar emeritus at the Poynter Institute. He is the author of 18 books, with a 19th on the way. His most popular work is Writing Tools.]