Review: Where the Dead Sit Talking
Where the Dead Sit Talking, by Brandon Hobson (2018)
TW: Drugs, suicide, sexual identity, violence against women
This is a dark and fever-dream-esque coming-of-age story, told from the perspective of Sequoyah, a Cherokee teenager in Oklahoma's foster care system. The novel begins with an older Sequoyah telling us that when he was young he watched someone die. We then switch to young-Sequoyah recounting the events of the summer it all happened.
With his loving but alcoholic mother in jail, Sequoyah bounces from group home to foster home, finally landing with the Troutts, a couple who have two other teenage foster kids - Rosemary and George. Before coming to live with the Troutts, Sequoyah spent most of his time alone, caring for his mother, or on the streets in dangerous situations. When he becomes obsessed with free-spirited but troubled Rosemary, it becomes clear that social isolation has made him easy to manipulate. Rosemary alternates between acting like his best friend and his worst tormentor, and Sequoyah seems unable to say no, or even to recognize an unhealthy relationship or unsafe situation when he's in it. He is also plagued by disturbing thoughts of violence that left me pretty uncomfortable... but I'm sure that was the point.
What complicates things more is that the narrative is disjointed, with seemingly big events being described with a single, off-handed mention, which left me feeling like I'd missed something. I would go back and re-read a paragraph or a page, trying to connect Sequoyah's random thoughts or Rosemary's erratic behavior to tenuous plot points. The narrative voice is also affectless and flat - again, probably purposeful, to show the consequences of the severe trauma Sequoyah has endured. Unfortunately, it made for dull reading.
I thought this book would be more of a condemnation of the way we treat young people in the foster care system, and the way we treat / have treated Native Americans throughout U.S. history. But it never felt like Hobson got to the meat of the story. Though if what he meant to convey was the general malaise and hopelessness of kids in these situations, then I guess he got it right? Just don't come here looking for a happy ending. (And maybe I missed it somehow, but I also never understood the title.)
I'm sorry, Brandon Hobson! I really wanted to like this a lot more than I did.
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