Surrender the Dead
John Burley
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Buy *Surrender the Dead* by John Burley online

Surrender the Dead
John Burley
William Morrow Paperbacks
Paperback
416 pages
January 2021
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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Burley unfurls a harrowing tale of monsters buried in the dark, a dark story about a series of disappearances in the town of Wolf Point, Montana. Angela Finley is the first girl to disappear, after sledding in Jacob's Field. On the other side of the trees were her friends, Emily Soto, Erin Reece, and Meghan Decker. The man stands on the snow behind her, wearing a brown winter hat and a heavy dark green jacket. While trying to run, Angela remembers what her mother says: "Don't take rides from strangers."

In November 2018, Erin Reece returns to Wolf Point, now a community of some twelve hundred residents. Her father David's condition is serious, maybe even life-threatening. Despite the things that happened to her at Wolf Point, it has never been enough to bring her back, until now. Connie Griffin lost a son to Wolf Point. A few years later, she lost another. Erin's first encounter with Connie jumpstarts her own memories of high school and her father's farm, a transitional place "where childhood had ended and the path toward adulthood began."

Presiding over the town is Jeff Stutzman, once Erin's classmate and now with the Wolf Point Police Dept. Jeff spends most of his time wrangling the various petty complaints of his fellow townsfolk - that is, until a body is found on David Reece's property. The years since Erin left have been riddled with private struggles and feelings of isolation and depression. Eight years after the first disappearance, Erin left, leaving David in the town she knew he might never escape. The town is for the most part a dour but peaceful place. Her return, however, has unleashed something that's been buried.

Erin in her current state is hard to love, a bitterly caustic personality whose immutable honesty tends to deflate and distance those around her. Burley mostly writes from inside Erin's head - from the desperate, shattered perspective of a young girl who in 1995 befriended a boy called Robbie. Erin's reality is warped by the emotional terror of seeing her high-school friends disappear. Like Erin, Robbie has also kept secrets, "stacked on top of one another and lost in the shadows." In 1995, Erin and Robbie loved to ride their bikes, their "summer holding on for a little while longer." In the years that have followed, Erin has condensed the memories into something minor and inconsequential.

Burley navigates around the town's various disappearances, Erin's serendipitous present-day return, her friendship with Robbie, her own mother's sudden vanishing, and the grim minutiae of the lives of those who remained in Wolf Point. We traverse the horrific night of Rose Perry, who vanished in the March 1996 after completing the past 20 minutes of her shift at the Old Town Grill. As the cold wraps itself around her, she thinks of the young girl Angela Finley, who went missing during the last storm, and also Kurt Hastings, who left his house about 20 minutes later after a fight with his wife and was never seen again.

"They had found something. Down there in the mud, A body." Though Erin has been back in Wolf Point for only a few hours, she already feels as though she has become one of them again. She's well aware of things still lingering in the town's collective consciousness--all the people who have gone missing, torn away from their families in broad daylight and the small hours of the night. Erin can still picture them. The names and faces rise to the surface from "the dark waters of her memory": Angela, Marian Rose, Helen Reece. Now that two of the bodies have been discovered on David's farm, the rest of the missing are suddenly "bubbling to the surface" of the town's collective consciousness.

From a candlelight vigil where mothers, sons, husbands, and daughters--"the lifeblood of the community"--gather to David's renewed search for answers, determined as ever to track down Helen's killer, it's a desperately unhappy situation, made worse by an exceptionally cruel incident that leads Erin into a violent assault. As the past and the present collide, Erin's focus turns to the barn that burned to the ground the day handsome Miles went missing. Ironically, it is Connie who says that nothing in the past stays buried forever: "buried things want to be discovered." With Robbie's reluctant help, Erin finally discovers the truth. Is the town itself complicit in the loss of innocence? David's illness has unearthed more than just an unsettling discovery in his farm.

The story has a classic whodunnit feel that grips us immediately. Burley rewinds scenes from Erin's life in the 1990s as she desperately looks for clues. Juxtaposing the trustworthiness of what you know versus whom you might actually suspect, Burley unlocks the Pandora's box of a town's darkest secrets, a place bearing the weight of families surrendering the evil things they do in the darkness.



Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. Michael Leonard, 2021

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