Where the Dead Sit Talking - Shadows

Sep 17, 2019

Credit Boston Public Library

I suppose you could call Where the Dead Sit Talking a coming-to-terms book. Our protagonist and narrator, Sequoyah, is in his mid-40s, looking back to his mid-teens. Sequoyah is remembering a death of a 17-year old girl he knew in 1989, when he was 15.

The book is a fictional dark memoire of a time in the narrator’s life when almost everything around him was bent. His single, alcoholic, boyfriend-hopping mother winds up in prison and he is sent to foster care where he meets Rosemary Blackwell, another child in the foster home, and he meets autistic George who is writing a book.

The story of Rosemary is woven through the narrative. We are told at the beginning that she killed herself though we don’t get to the circumstances of her death until almost the very end of the book.

Rosemary Blackwell is Cherokee, like Sequoyah, and like the author, Brandon Hobson.

In a way Hobson himself is coming to terms with his heritage and himself.

The foster father is a bookie and has thousands of dollars in cash hidden on the property. There is Jack who offers him a ride, as do many others, as he says, “… his interest in me was not unlike the men who would ask me for rides when I would walk along Highway 30 back in Cherokee County.” He barely escapes from Jack after the ride goes to Jack’s house with an assortment of boys and a girl lying or sitting around.

There is the matter of names. We never know whether Sequoyah has a last name. His foster family have first and last names as does Rosemary Blackwell. But few others. We never learn the name of his mother or his father or his great grandfather who inspires his world of spirits. We know the first names of his social worker, his mother’s last boyfriend and the boyfriend’s son.

He is fascinated by the mercurial, sometimes distant and sometimes intimate Rosemary. Both share a fluidness about sexual identity (he seems androgynous) although it is Rosemary who has acted on it and Sequoyah who shies away at his opportunities. He stays just on the outside, never feeling he belongs.

Sequoyah himself carries burn scars on his face from an accident when his mother splattered him with hot cooking oil. They are a visible metaphor for deep emotional scars, also marking him as different and not belonging. He , Rosemary and George are all throwaway youngsters. Lost in a system when their own parents cannot care for them.

They survive, each in their own ways. We can see the risky and self-harming behavior of Rosemary, the avoidance of Sequoyah and the retreat of George. Each of them is acting to avoid destruction using the wrong methods, especially Rosemary.

This book is peopled with shadows, people from his teens whose impressions remain with him now. But not mystical shadows or spiritual shadows or ceremonies, just the gritty memories of a troubled time. The young Sequoyah is dodging and ducking from the life around him and nearly 30 years later he lets us know right off that he remains unhappy.

Sequoyah tells us, “People kill themselves or they get killed. The rest of us live on, burdened by what is inescapable.”