A thought-provoking look at the lasting effects of trauma, Where the Dead Sit Talking follows two Native American teens as they form an unexpected bond.
Set in rural Oklahoma during the late 1980s, Where the Dead Sit Talking charts the rise and fall of a brief but intense bond between two Native American teens, Rosemary and Sequoyah, who share the same foster home. The novel, published by Soho Press, is the fourth book of author Brandon Hobson. The coming-of-age story is told from the perspective of an older Sequoyah, who begins at the end, with Rosemary’s death, and then jumps to the moment he first met his foster parents, Harold and Agnes Troutt.
Sequoyah arrives at the Troutt household with many scars, both figurative and literal. The fifteen-year-old Cherokee boy’s father abandoned him when he was a child, and his mother neglected him and left him at the mercy of her abusive male partners. Early in his life, Sequoyah’s mom even once flung grease onto his face while cooking, leaving his visage permanently scarred. The Troutts try to make Sequoyah feel as welcomed in their quiet home as their other foster children, George and Rosemary, but his detached recollection of the time he spent there makes it clear that, even as an adult, he still suffers and dissociates as a coping mechanism.
Much of the narrative focuses on Sequoyah’s relationship with Rosemary. Two years older than Sequoyah, Rosemary initially bonds with him over their shared Native American ancestry and their history of childhood abuse. The teens wander about the desolate Oklahoma landscape, revealing their pasts piecemeal and undertaking morbid dares, like shooting a wild dog and burying a dead rabbit. Sequoyah increasingly idealizes and identifies with Rosemary, without necessarily being attracted to her, and their fraught bond exacerbates his growing confusion about his gender identity. As time passes, Sequoyah, not knowing how to make sense of his feelings or maintain healthy relationships, oversteps Rosemary’s boundaries, and she withdraws.
In response, Sequoyah obsesses over the safety of his foster sibling, whose life is falling apart. Rosemary starts to stay out late, come home drunk, and disappear for days, while Sequoyah follows her from afar and tries to glean as much information as possible from her diary. Sequoyah’s invasive tendencies and violent impulses recur throughout all the novel’s twenty-one chapters, but toward the end they increase in frequency and intensity. The disturbing subject matter clashes with Hobson’s stark, understated prose, making for a highly unsettling reading experience.
The novel, unsurprisingly, culminates with Rosemary’s death. While Sequoyah acknowledges that his foster sister dies at the start of the story, her death feels sensational and avoidable when it happens. Rosemary seems to die solely for the sake of the author’s convenience; her death halts her unresolved storyline, and her absence seemingly puts to an end Sequoyah’s vexed feelings about his gender and sexuality. The novel’s end left me feeling gross, and tarnished what had been an absorbing, if distressing, story about displacement, trauma, and coming of age under great stress.
While the audiobook’s performance was decent, I thought that the narrator, Eric Michael Summerer, didn’t capture Sequoyah’s tone. Summerer inserts a level of emotion into his reading that doesn’t seem to be there in the text: it took me a while to figure out that Hobson’s prose was meant to be affectless, not simple.
Where the Dead Sit Talking recently was shortlisted for the 2018 National Book Award in Fiction. This is the second title I’ve read from the shortlist, and I liked it better than Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers, which felt overlong and inconsistent. I still felt that Hobson could have spent more time developing Rosemary and Sequoyah as characters, instead of abruptly ending the plot, and the novel as a whole was a lot bleaker and creepier than I expected. In spite of that, the storytelling is compact and compelling, and Hobson deals with the intersection of abuse, race, and gender in ways that are thought provoking.