Friday, December 16, 2022

Where the Dead Sit Talking by Brandon Hobson

Source of book: Audiobook from the library


This book is kind of an unofficial (and late) selection for Native American Heritage Month. I didn’t finish my previous audiobook soon enough to start this one in November, but did take advantage of all the commuting for holiday music gigs to listen to this one pretty quickly. 

Where the Dead Sit Talking is a pretty dark book, centering around the suicide of a troubled teen girl. It also examines the trauma of foster care, and the difficulty of fitting in as a Native American in a very white town. 


Sequoyah is a 15 year old boy who ends up in foster care when his mother is sent to prison on drug charges. By the time the story begins, he has already been in a shelter, then a series of homes that didn’t work out for various reasons. 


Then, he is sent to a small rural town in Oklahoma to live with the Troutts. Harold and Agnes are an older couple who seem pretty nice, and they have already taken in two other fosters: George, a kid who is probably on the autism spectrum, and Rosemary, a 17 year old girl who is also Native American. 


All of the kids have their own secret traumas. Since the story is told in the first person by Sequoyah, for the most part we do not learn what these were. George is unable to talk about his past, and Rosemary gives only hints of what she has gone through, before her depression and other issues lead to her suicide. It is no spoiler to say this, because the book reveals it on the first page. 


The experience of this book is really disorienting, because of the way the author wrote it. His intent, I believe, was to reproduce the feeling of alienation, disorientation, and weirdness that is Sequoyah’s experience of life, and I think he succeeded. 


For example, there is a fundamental question that is never answered. Is the small town just a normal place, or is there a dark underbelly to it? Sequoyah hears hints of orgies and strange parties and dark deeds in the past, but nothing is ever really revealed to be true. Other than the fact that Harold moonlights as a bookie, just like his father did. But that is hardly anything sinister. There is also a guy that might be a predator, but that isn’t any surprise for any town. Those people exist, and some of them end up running cults. And, like pretty much everywhere, there is a homeless encampment. None of this is as weird and sinister as the stuff in Sequoyah’s head. 


And man, Sequoyah has stuff going on in his head. He is clearly struggling with years of trauma. His dad walking out, his mom’s troubles with the law, his removal from his family and the sequence of rootlessness that has followed. This has manifested as physical symptoms, from recurring headaches to sleeplessness to nausea and vomiting when he is stressed. 


He also has periodic violent thoughts, an urge to harm others or himself, although these are more notable because they bother him, not because he feels compelled to act on them. He also finds himself laughing at inappropriate moments, which terrifies George. 


I think these are entirely normal responses, but Sequoyah has no real way of dealing with them. His one friend he could talk to is Rosemary, but she increasingly withdraws from him before ending her life. The Troutts try to draw him out - indeed, they are kind people, and Sequoyah notes at the end of the book that he feels they are family - but the kind of rapport necessary for that kind of relationship is really difficult to form, particularly in a short time. 


The therapists that Sequoyah sees are not particularly helpful either. Everyone knows he is stressed, and urges him to “relax.” He is urged to do the usual therapy things, but the problem at the root is that he feels bad because bad things have happened and are continuing to happen to him. There is no way to make them better, which is why there is no way to make him feel better. 


This is the hard truth at the core of trauma. Don’t get me wrong, I think therapy is often helpful, particularly for changing patterns of thought, but it can’t heal ongoing harm. Talking is not going to fix the fact that Sequoyah has been separated from his family, his friends, and his security. 


I also found the acknowledgement of violent thoughts to be interesting. If you were to get honest answers from people, I wager you would find that most - maybe all of us - have occasional weird thoughts along those lines. Thoughts we will never act on, and didn’t consciously summon. I myself have had such things happen - a random, unexpected, suicidal or violent thought that will pop into the head unrelated to anything else, leaving me saying to myself, “what the hell was that and where did it come from.” It’s kind of a similar thing to the way humans generally have shown a bizarre reaction to a cliff - an impulse to jump off it. (This has been studied, actually - it’s really common, and is not considered to be a suicide risk. Most of us never come close to acting on these thoughts.) 


Hobson really gets into the head of his character in an impressive way. If you read Sequoyah wrong, you might think he is a budding sociopath at times, but if you take a step back, you find he is the opposite. He is fighting his brain’s response to trauma, and sometimes things misfire. And he is also still a kid, with his brain not yet developed. The whole thing felt very realistic and familiar. 


Sequoyah also appears to be struggling with identity on multiple levels. His status as a Native American in a very white place, his lack of family of course. But also, he seems to have gender-related struggles. He wears eyeliner, and wants to wear Rosemary’s clothes. He is somewhat obsessed with Rosemary, but not in a sexual way at all. The book doesn’t dwell on this or ever explain what is going on, but from Sequoyah’s mind comes some indication of ambivalence about gender and sexuality. Hobson has indicated that this was intentional - and back in the 1980s, kids weren’t free or likely to be out to the degree they are now.


The book also, without being preachy, illuminates what a total clusterfuck the foster care system is. The Troutts are essentially good, decent people trying to help out. And they are devastated by Rosemary’s suicide, wondering what they could have done differently. (Answer: probably nothing.) But the system itself creates trauma. 


Some background here: I do contract work on juvenile cases for a couple of tribes, who have (at least for now) the right to intervene in cases involving children of the tribe, under the Indian Child Welfare Act. So I have seen this up close. To be sure, there are some cases where there are no good solutions, and a child must be removed from the home. But many of these are about poverty and the cascade of failures that result. This is why you will almost never see a child of middle or upper class parents in the system. Between the ability to appear functional, and the networks of relatives and friends able to assist, things rarely get to the point where continued custody is impossible. Overwhelmingly, the children in the system come from impoverished backgrounds. The deeper the poverty, the more likely that a child will end up in foster care. 


The cure for this needs to be a shift from punishing “bad parents” to alleviation of the underlying issues: income and housing insecurity, lack of access to mental healthcare, lack of support systems, and the disproportionate consequences placed on the impoverished for any mistake. 


In this book, Sequoyah is the victim of the War on Drugs (which Drugs continue to win), and should never have ended up in the system. One can see that the trauma inflicted is going to lead to repeating issues down the road for so many of these foster youth. And the cycle of poverty and addiction and incarceration and trauma will continue. 


I should mention that the book is set in the 1980s - my childhood - so there are no cell phones, cassettes are a thing, and everybody smokes. I could practically feel the texture of the faux wood wall paneling. Hobson captures the feel of the era well. 


As I said, it is a pretty dark book, although there are moments of humor, and the ending is somehow both depressing yet hopeful. Sequoyah looks forward to the future with dread, but it is also clear that he has found a family of sorts, and made peace with some things. 


Hobson brings his own experience to this book. He is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, and spent seven years working with troubled children, many of them in foster care. He describes the foster care system as analogous to the Trail of Tears, with children experiencing constant dislocation and the lack of a home. 


There is a lot of nuance and perception in this book - Hobson brings a unique voice to life in a way that feels emotionally true and honest. 


The audiobook was narrated by Eric Michael Summerer, who does an outstanding job. One of the best I have heard at getting unique voices for each character so that they are instantly distinguishable. The audiobook adds to the experience of this book. 

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