Culture-Crossing Teenagers

Sep 11, 2019

Credit Flickr Creative Commons 2.0

This is Leslie VonHolten of Chase County, Kansas, with another HPPR Radio Readers Book Byte.

Most of the books in this season’s Radio Readers list are about children crossing cultures, and the rough waters they must navigate to do so.

Young teenager Sequoyah, the narrator in Brandon Hobson’s Where the Dead Sit Talking, is himself navigating a triple-whammy of culture crossing: He’s placed with a new foster family while his mom is in jail. He’s Cherokee, now living with white people. And he’s a teenager, that universal crossing experience from child to adult.

Sequoyah is a good kid who shirks dumb rules. He gets in trouble for leaving his group home, for walking to homeless camps, for simply exploring. He smokes some, but mostly he’s respectful and appreciative of his odd but kind foster parents. His behavior is more as a kid untethered, rather than openly defiant. He’s on input, taking in the world and its strange information, almost overloading with the stories and characters he encounters.

For instance, in Little Crow, his new town. There might be a strange cult here, Sequoyah wonders. Why do all of the women wear their long hair the same? And wear long skirts? And what is going on with these photos of his foster-sister, Rosemary? But then school the next day is soooo boring and the questioning is almost forgotten. As a foster kid, he gets sick of being asked all the time, how do you feel? But then when he’s left alone, the loneliness is crushing.

To me, Sequoyah is a refreshingly real character. Sometimes he boils over in an ugly way. Then later he is frustratingly laconic. Like nearly every teenager I have known, he is looking for the edges of acceptable behavior in a stormy world. And although we know the storms are never set off by him, well, it certainly feels that way sometimes. Rarely do we find teenagers so sympathetically depicted in novels, these complicated and dangerous and delicate beings among us.

The strange cultural dissonance that Sequoyah straddles reminded me of the teenage characters often found in Miriam Toews’s early novels, especially A Complicated Kindness. In that, teenager Nomi Nickel doesn’t quite understand why her Mennonite family has fallen apart. Her parents, and she and her sister, are being pulled by competing cultures, and her negotiation of give-and-take is failing. Instead Nomi is forced to walk alone, she feels, with contrasting indicators from her church, her loving but absent mother, or her beloved punk rock and Lou Reed songs. They burn a scorched-earth approach to life before her, paths that go in complicated directions. How is a child to know which way to go? Similar to the strange, fever-dreamlike moments in Sequoyah’s story, Nomi’s also presents moments that make no sense and are therefore noted but set aside.

I remember these teen years myself, suddenly seeing the adults around me as not being the know-all and wise people I believed them to be. They were flawed, and often weird, and had pasts that didn’t make sense. In that way I related to Sequoyah. Being a teenager is almost too much to compute.

This is Radio Reader Leslie VonHolten hoping you will join us in reading Where the Dead Sit Talking by Brandon Hobson. Find more at HPPR.org, or Like us on Facebook.