NBA Longlist Review: Where the Dead Sit Talking by Brandon Hobson
Brandon Hobson has written at least two previous novels and a bunch of short stories, but this is my first book by him. It tells the story of about two years in the life of 14/15 year old Sequoyah, who has been living in foster homes and shelters since his mother was sent to prison for drug- and alcohol-related offenses. Sequoyah loves his mother but he has learned to distance himself from her, for his own sake. His case worker finds him a new foster placement in a rural area a couple of hours from where he’d been living in Tulsa, OK. He becomes the third foster kid in the Troutt’s house, along with 17YO Rosemary and 13YO George. Sequoyah is Cherokee and Rosemary is Kiowa, and that creates an instant bond between them, but their connection deepens as they spend time together. It’s never sexual but it’s emotionally very intense. George and Sequoyah share a room and also get to know each other, and mostly they get along, but George is focused and obsessive about his interests (he’s writing a novel, among other things) and he has trauma-based fears. So it’s not really a friendship, although they grow to care for each other’s well being. The Troutts are a bit odd but kind and supportive. The caseworker is also kind and supportive, although necessarily from a distance.
The entire story is told through Sequoyah’s POV. We learn about his upbringing and background through his ruminations and flashbacks, including his childhood in Cherokee County, his mother’s lapses, and the kitchen accident that left him with obvious facial scarring. Sequoyah wants to connect with people but he doesn’t really know how, and he veers from aloof to intensely attached depending on his mood and general state. He’s very much a teenage boy, but one who has had a difficult life and is having to make his way without stability or supportive love from any family members. His found family isn’t bad, especially given what it could be, and he does the best he can with it. Rosemary becomes the focus of his obsessive interest and attention, which creates problems because she is unstable and unpredictable.
Although a lot of things happen in the course of the novel, they’re related at such a controlled, subtle pitch that they don’t feel consequential until they sink in. In the hands of another writer the story could have been highly emotional and melodramatic. But that’s not how Sequoyah experiences and internalizes it, so we don’t either. The way it creeps up on the reader made it far more devastating to read than it would have been if the emotions had been raw on the page.
The writing is phenomenal, and the evocation of both Sequoyah’s interiority and the general setting are beautifully, sensitively rendered. It’s a strongly controlled, even detached narrative style, which for me made it even more effective (mileage will vary on this one). Every character is carefully brought to life and becomes more than the sum of their obvious characteristics.
I’ve been puzzling since I started reading the novel about why it hasn’t received more attention and garnered more major reviews. Stylistically it’s as strong as anything I’ve read this year. In terms of subject matter, it’s thoroughly a novel about important aspects of Native American life today. I wonder if being described as a coming-of-age novel has hurt it as much as helped it, because it is that, but it’s so much more than that. It’s not YA in the contemporary sense the word is used, rather it’s a novel about teenagers that can and should be read by anyone, from teenagers through adults. It captures the intensity and difficulty of being a teenager so well, and it locates that in the tragedy that we as a society have created for children who are thrown into the foster and juvenile care system. No one is villainous here, but the institutions have terrible consequences.
It’s also not the kind of Native American story that gets the most attention. It’s written by a Native American author who knows the setting intimately, and Sequoyah’s and Rosemary’s (and Sequoyah’s mother’s) experiences echo the lives of people in their communities, but it’s not Explaining The Native American Experience in big bold letters. Instead, it’s telling us the stories we don’t know about people who are right in front of us, without overtly pointing us to moral and political lessons. It’s devastating, and brilliant, and everyone should read it.
5 stars at Goodreads.