by Helen Patterson
Where the Dead Sit Talking is Oklahoma author and writing instructor Brandon Hobson’s latest work. The novel is set in the winter of 1989 in a small town near Tulsa and narrated by Sequoyah, a fifteen-year-old Cherokee. Sequoyah has bounced around several foster homes and shelters while his addicted mother serves a jail sentence. At the start of the novel, he moves in with foster parents Agnes and Harold Troutt and their other foster children: seventeen-year-old artist Rosemary and thirteen-year-old writer George (who is possibly on the autism spectrum). The novel explores Sequoyah’s struggle to fit into the world and his conflicting desires to be alone and “to be liked, accepted” (37). Unfortunately, his heritage, upbringing, and facial scarring (from hot grease his mother accidentally flung into his face) all make him stand out.
Like Holden in “The Catcher in the Rye,” Sequoyah is an alienated teenager, the product of a broken system. His experiences make him angry and prone to thoughts of violence and degradation. He does not always act on these thoughts, but Rosemary does convince him to (unsuccessfully) shoot a dog, George is afraid of him, and there are a few hints of the mysterious future deaths of characters he doesn’t like which suggest a darkness simmering just below Sequoyah’s surface.
Perhaps more distressing than these dark thoughts is Sequoyah’s distance from those around him, the way he observes himself and others as if a play is unfolding before him. Given his need to distance himself from the pain of his mother’s imprisonment and his own unstable situation, this distance is understandable if unhealthy.
The other characters in the novel respond to Sequoyah’s outsider status, recognizing him as a person who is not fully formed, who is too flat and abstracted to be a real individual. They are constantly confiding in him, confessing startlingly intimate details about their lives and their dreams in relentless monologues. These jarring monologues strikingly convey the disconnect between Sequoyah and everyone around him.
The exception to Sequoyah’s isolation is his relationship to his older foster sister, Rosemary. At first, their connection seems like the typical infatuation of a younger teenager for an older, cooler one, but Sequoyah’s attraction is more the desire to be Rosemary, to feel what it is like to live in her skin. Sequoyah feels a kinship to Rosemary, partially because she is also Native American (Kiowa), but also because she, like him, is the product of a broken family and a dysfunctional system. Sequoyah wants to wear her clothes, sit in her closet, watch her in her most intimate and unguarded moments, as if he can feel them, too, and through them find some way back to a “self”—any self.
Sadly, Rosemary dies. I’m not spoiling anything by revealing this—it is in the first paragraph. Waiting for Rosemary’s death gives the entire novel a sense of inevitability. I’ve read a lot of books where the mysterious, creative female character dies, and usually I feel a pang of resentment. The women who die in these books often seem to die because it is convenient to the story, particularly the male characters in the story who are trying to find themselves. But Rosemary’s death is not for the convenience of the story; it is the story. Rosemary is the culmination and distillation of years of injustice and pain, both her personal pain and the pain and violence inflicted on indigenous peoples, particularly women, that is still often undiscussed and unseen. Meeting Rosemary forces Sequoyah, and the reader, to realize that life is often bleak.
Rosemary’s final words to Sequoyah are: “You never listen” (246), but long after finishing Where the Dead Sit Talking, the reader will listen and wonder what else the dead have to tell us. I hope Hobson will fill the silence with other books soon.
Originally hailing from Colorado, Helen Patterson is a graduate of The University of Tulsa. She works at the Tulsa City-County Library, writes literary horror, and loves a wonderful Okie boy.