What Haunts Me

Sep 10, 2019

The Favorite, 1890
Credit Georgios Jakovidis

Hello. I’m Jane Holwerda from Dodge City, Kan., here to talk about Brandon Hobson’s Where the Dead Sit Talking.

My problem is: I don’t really know what to say. It’s not the fault of the novel, not by any means. It’s well-crafted, beautifully written. But for me, it’s one of those books that as I turned the final page I thought: 'huh: the end. What to make of this? ' Yet, it’s also one of those books that haunts me, long after I thought I had finished with it. Given its title, Where the Dead Sit Talking, to feel haunted perhaps makes a kind of sense.

So I’ve tried considering the title, knowing that considering a title can tease out some meaning: Who are these dead? What are they talking about?  And to whom are they talking? I mean, in the novel, the central characters, Native American teenagers in foster care, seem as if islands onto themselves, removed from families and isolated from cultural communities. They do try to establish relationships with each other. There is a great deal of dialogue in this novel; am I supposed to understand that these teenagers are dead, mostly in some kind of metaphorical way?

Sometimes when I’m mulling over a book,  I will open it and let the pages fall where they will (yes, one of the reasons I prefer print on a page)  It’s not surprising that when I opened the book the pages opened to a conversation. One boy has just shared a letter with another boy. The letter is from his grandparents. He says he receives a letter about every three years.  This letter is not quite a full page. It’s an accounting of meals the grandparents have eaten or plan to eat: salmon mousse on cucumbers, Perrier, minestrone – culinary treats the boy himself has probably never tasted.

The boy says that his grandparents didn’t want to him to live with them. There is a shared silence, and then the other boy changes the subject, tells stories of ways he’s pushed back against isolation and loneliness. It’s a diversionary strategy and it works as both boys then distance themselves from  family matters. Maybe this is Hobson’s nod to Tolstoy who wrote that while "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." 

My own family, on the happy-unhappy continuum, I’d situate somewhere in the middle. My own grandparents, long passed from this earth, gave me no room to question their love and cherishing of me. Meals we shared together, meals I was expected to help prepare then clean up afterwards. 

My grandparents, and parents of course and aunts and uncles, cousins, and siblings, told me stories about our family, living and dead, grounding me in the lore and the values of the family name and a few ethnic traditions, like which foods are to be served at which holidays. I kid you not: I once served lasagna at Thanksgiving, and what a stir: what? No roast turkey? And what about the stuffing, the candied yams?  This is a story we laugh when we tell. Remember? Remember?

The thing is, this moment in Hobson’s novel about letters from grandparents, emphasizes the reality the children of Hobson’s novel –they don’t seem to have good memories to call up, no affirming and valuing memories. 

I’ve realized that’s what haunts me about Hobson’s novel. That the dead who sit talking are people who are of the age of possibility and potential from whom we’d expect to hear gabbing about preposterously ambitious plans for the future. Instead, largely deadened to hope, what could animate, rejuvenate, them? What do they need? How will they source those needs?

For HPPR’s Radio Readers, I’m Jane Holwerda from Dodge City KS.