People Live and People Die: A Review

Brandon Hobson’s, dark, delicate novel, Where the Dead Sit Talking, is one of those novels that comes around rarely in Native American letters, one that quietly changes everything.

Where the Dead Sit Talking, by Brandon Hobson. Soho Press, 2018. 288pp, fiction.

When 15-year-old Sequoyah’s mother ends up in prison, he goes to live with a well-intentioned white couple, who are fostering two other teenagers. One of the teens is Rosemary, another Native. She’s a strong, deeply hurt Kiowa girl, and Sequoyah is drawn to her. He has been dragged from foster home to foster home, and though his mother made sure to pass on traditional and contemporary Cherokee stories while he was living with her, Sequoyah is still struggling to understand exactly who he is. Rosemary is powerful. Though dark, Rosemary forcefully goes about her life, in exactly the way she wants to. It’s this self-sovereignty that drives Sequoyah’s attraction in their relationship.

What is so unique about this book is how little it isn’t concerned with explaining all Indians to all white people (a trait more common in the literature of Canadian First Nations writers, than Native writers in the United States.). Still unique in their own ways, Hobson’s closest comparison might be James Welch, who also understood that his only job as a writer, and as a Native, was to write imaginatively and poetically about the world he knew. Where the Dead Sit Talking is only concerned with the story it is telling, about two Native people and their troubling, compelling, and subtly riveting relationship. It is a work of art. And art is rarer in American Literary Letters than most would care to admit.

Sequoyah will trouble the reader with his world. He has hang-ups, often sexual, that he uses to exert control over his world. This isn’t to say that he is a monster: he is a young man, and he hurts. His mother was his world, and she’s gone. She has been replaced by Rosemary, who tells him that she wants to die; and she does. This is not a spoiler. But a way to illustrate how this brilliant novel is framed. In it’s opening series of paragraphs, the last ends with:

“Rosemary is dead. People live and people die. People kill themselves or they get killed. The rest of us live on, burdened by what is inescapable.”