BOOK REVIEW: Where the Dead Sit Talking, an intense and disturbing account of the relationship between Sequoyah and his foster sister

Hobson, Brandon - Where the Dead Sit Talking w AmeliaWhere the Dead Sit Talking
Brandon Hobson

Fifteen-year-old Sequoyah, half Cherokee, scarred from hot grease his mother flung when she ostensibly didn’t realize he was in the kitchen, has been in the foster care system since his mother was arrested with possession with intent to distribute. His tireless social worker has seen him through a placement with a family that didn’t work out and a stint at a group home where he was able to sneak out and roam the streets. She finally thought she found the perfect match with the Troutts, an older couple living in rural Little Crow, Oklahoma.

The Troutt family includes Howard, a bookie, Agnes, who we don’t learn much about, and their current foster children, George, about thirteen and likely autistic, and Rosemary, seventeen, a Kiowa Indian who is planning to go to art school on east coast. Sequoyah feels more comfortable at the Troutt home than he did in previous placements, though he bemoans the loss of freedom. He becomes particularly attached to Rosemary, feeling they are connected, like twins, or even the same person at times and able to communicate telepathically, and obeys her directives whatever she asks, though internally, he has violent thoughts about her.

No narrator has scared me like Sequoyah in a very long time. The sentences are simple with little variation in structure, a deliberate choice that bleaches the emotions out of Sequoyah’s delivery and makes his fantasies of violence and, at times, descriptions of actual violence, even more harrowing. Sequoyah frequently begins his statements with I saw…, I watched…, I remembered which also places him in a position of observer and further distances him from the emotions associated with the events in the novel.

One latent emotion is present–rage–and perhaps Sequoyah’s rage is justified. Not only is he judged for the scars on his face and torso, not only has he been abandoned by his mother, he watched a series of boyfriends abuse her and was possibly abused himself. He struggles with identity, his Indian identity, but also his gender identity. He wears eyeliner, a bold choice in rural Oklahoma for young men even today, but in the late 1980s completely radical. His desire to become Rosemary speaks to his desire to shed his masculine skin.

Sequoyah’s navigation of the foster care system and his sense that no place for him is really home reflects the displacement and forced removal of Native Americans in the United States. He carefully observes the markers of home: portraits and paintings on the walls, books on shelves, pictures in frames, with the sense that that type of belonging and way to inhabit space is barred from him. (Interestingly, by the end of the novel, he spends most of his time in a teepee that Howard helped him construct.)

The presence of birds–hawks, geese, blackbirds, cardinals, and generic birds–looms large in the text, at times, serving as a symbol of freedom or protection, other times appearing as potential threats. Most frequently, though, they seem to be completely indifferent to whatever events Sequoyah is describing and highlight the sense that he is alone and rudderless.

Sequoyah and Rosemary often relate their dreams, with Rosemary especially aware of the preternatural meaning they hold, as warnings but as sources of hope as well. More than once, Sequoyah dreams about his father coming back to life and returning to him covered with dirt and debris from his grave. (As far as the reader knows, his father is in Mexico.)

Although Sequoyah does have moments of empathy–he carefully considers the life of an elderly man with dementia he encountered–he is not really able to see others, especially Rosemary, as distinct individuals. A final confrontation with Rosemary arises in large part because, in crisis, she pulls away from him, and he sees that as a personal affront rather than a reflection of her current state. That might not be so unusual for a teenager, but there are brief allusions indicating that Sequoyah didn’t change after his time with the Troutts.

Where the Dead Sit Talking, a 2018 National Book Award Finalist, is undoubtedly intense and disturbing. I always love reading books set in Oklahoma, but besides frequent trips to the Sonic Drive-In, the novel didn’t really evoke a sense of place unique to the state. Additionally, there are multiple scenes with violence toward animals. To some extent, I can accept that these depictions play a role in characterization, but I also think that the characters were fully drawn as disturbed individuals without including these scenes.

To fully appreciate the novel requires a degree of attention and concentration to unpack Sequoyah’s narration. Though there were many things about it that unsettled me, I was ultimately glad I read it.


BOOK REVIEW: We’re All Wonders, a picture book with the powerful message to choose kindness

Palacio, RJ - We're All Wonders
We’re All Wonders
RJ Palacio

We’re All Wonders
, a picture book for young readers ages four to eight based on the runaway phenomenon Wonder, could not have a better message: choose kind. The narrator (Augie Pullman, unnamed in this book but recognizable from Wonder) loves to do the things all children do: ride a bike, eat ice cream, play ball, and hang out with his dog, Daisy. But, he doesn’t look like other children. Although his mother says he is unique–a wonder–other people often stare or laugh which understandably hurts his feelings.

At these times, he images putting on a space helmet and traveling to Pluto where he says hello to old friends and watches the earth from far away. He reflects on the diversity of humans on the planet, room for everyone. Although he knows he can never change his appearance, he hopes that other people will change their perspective and see him not as different, but as the wonder he is. And in choosing kindness, they’ll know that they are wonders, too. The book closes with the reminder: Look with kindness and you will always find wonder.

I’ve read the book a few times now, and each time, I find myself crying for Augie and for his beautiful message which seems to be needed now more than ever. The story packs an emotional punch and will help guardians discuss differences and empathy with young readers. The illustrations provide an added element of emotional engagement as they vividly display Augie and Daisy’s reactions to cruelness–and kindness.

We're All Wonders Collage

While there is very little to criticize about the book, I did hesitate to give it a full five star rating because, as much as I loved the message, it seemed the story was slight, even for children’s book, and could have been slightly expanded, but I am on the fence a little about this since I wouldn’t want the narrative to overwhelm young readers. On a different note, Augie might look different, but his difference is very cute: he has one big eye in an otherwise empty face. I worried that the benignity of his appearance might undercut some of the prejudice and discrimination he faced and misrepresent the hardships of people who look different. I am on the fence about this, too, because one, Augie’s difference is representational and can be applied to so many aspects of difference, and two, again, this might be the most appropriate representation for young readers. Things to think about anyway while you read this book yourself and to the young readers you know…you definitely should!

BOOK REVIEW: The Emissary, an isolationist Japan in the aftermath of environmental catastrophe

Tawada, Yoko - The EmissaryThe Emissary
Yoko Tawada

Environmental degradation in Japan has damaged the youth of the country: they are weak, have a near constant fever, suffer from digestive issues, and are sensitive to temperature changes and extremes, though they also have indomitable spirits. At the same time, the elderly are near-immortal, blessed with energy and strong constitutions. Still, the government of Japan instituted an isolationist policy terminating all imports and exports with foreign countries, forbidding travel abroad, and prohibiting the use of foreign terms (e.g., “overalls”).

In this milieu, Yoshiro cares for his great-grandson, Mumei. Mumei’s great-grandmother runs Elsewhere Academy, an institution for “independent children” while his grandparents work on an orchard in Okinawa. His mother died in labor, and his addict father’s whereabouts are unknown.

If you are wanting a book with plot or with a clear resolution, The Emissary (also released as The Last Children of Tokyo) will disappoint you. However, the novel does present a chilling though viable view of a future Japan reacting to the devastation wrought by changes in climate, environmental toxins, and shifts in the relationship between older and younger citizens.

My favorite parts of the book related to language and how language changed in response to the culture and environmental changes. In addition to the prohibition on foreign vocabulary, other words fell out of favor or lost their meaning, with no new words replacing them. Characters gave a great deal of thought to words that didn’t sound right like “chum” and “cleaner.” The Japanese voted in a slew of new holidays and changed the names of many others. In my favorite shift, “Labor Day” became “Being Alive Is Enough Day.”

The Emissary also hinted at the tensions between regions of Japan and how an isolationist policy can foster suspicion and resentment among a country; it also was a dirge to the experience lost when travel was no longer possible and when people no longer could see diverse flora and fauna due to extinction. There are also interesting references to fluidity between sexes increasing.

Mumei is presented as a charming, precocious character who stole Yoshimo’s heart as well as those of his great-grandmother and teacher. I found him annoying at best and at worst creepy. This was only heightened for me about three-fourths of the way into the book when there is an unexpected and jarring shift from Yoshima’s point of view, which had been constant until that point, to Mumei’s. After Mumei’s voice intruded, those of his great-grandmother, Marika, and his teacher, Mr. Yonatani, followed. I certainly don’t mind having multiple points of view in a book, but I do think that each novel creates its own grammar, and changing perspectives was a shift in the book’s grammar that I found irritating when it occurred so late in the narrative.

So for me, there were delightful elements in the prose, but the individual parts did not come together to me to elevate the whole, and I can’t say that I enjoyed the book that much, thought it was definitely different and somewhat interesting. However, I do take to heart Mr. Yonati’s reflections on isolationism: “It was clearly necessary to think of the future along the curved lines of our round earth. The isolation policy that looked so invulnerable was actually nothing but a sand castle. You could destroy it, little by little, with those plastic shovels kids use at the beach.”


BOOK REVIEW: Trail of Lightening, a dystopia with a Navajo protagonist

Roanhouse, Rebecca -Trail of Lightning (1)Trail of Lightening
The Sixth World #1
Rebecca Roanhouse

After cataclysmic climate change reformed the borders of the United States, the Navajo (Diné) closed ranks and built a wall around their land. This Sixth World also changed the borders between the real and mystical realms, allowing figures like the Coyote (the Trickster) to manifest themselves.

Diné Maggie Hoskie thought her life was over when she and her grandmother were attacked. Instead, her clan powers manifested and immortal monsterslayer Naayéé’ Neizghání appeared, seemingly out of the blue. For several years, Maggie traveled with Neizghání who taught her how to fight and use her clan powers to her advantage. But after a gruesome battle, Neizghání left Maggie. She retreated to life in a remote area of Dinétah with only her rez dogs as companions. But then, a representative from the Lukachukai convinced her to help them find a young girl who was kidnapped by a monster.

Maggie successfully defeats the monster, but it’s unlike any she has ever seen before. Its arrival pulls her into a dangerous quest to find who is creating the monsters. Along the way, she partners with Kai Arviso, a medicine man-in-training, who carries secrets of his own. Together, they inexorably advance to an inevitable confrontation with Neizghání who may be more of a monster than monsterslayer.

Having a young adult dystopian novel with a female Native American protagonist makes this a book worth considering since representation is so important. And I was poised to like the book. Unfortunately, it did not meet my expectations. Maggie is an unlikable main character who is judgmental, defensive, isolated, distrusting, quick to judge, and with an over-exaggerated sense of her own importance. Sadly, she was not a unique character. I felt like her voice was indistinguishable from that of Mare Barrow in Victoria Aveyard’s Red Queen series, and probably several other protagonists in this genre as well. Like many of the books in this category, it’s told in present tense which isn’t my preference, but became irritating when some flashbacks were in present tense and some in past tense. In that area, consistency is important. The plot was poorly paced in my estimation, and the motivations of characters unclear, while the denouement offered me no payoff for the investment.

And, Roanhouse violated my cardinal rule regarding the treatment of animals. Maggie went off several times without any thought to her dogs. I wonder if labeling them “rez dogs” means it’s okay in her mind for them to fend for themselves. This is an irresponsible position. Today, Reservation Animal Rescue estimates that as many between 1,500 and 6,000 stray dogs roam the Navajo reservation. Spoiler alert: their lives are not good. Yes, Trail of Lightning is fiction, and yes, it’s set in a dystopian future, but still, the behavior of characters in fiction serves to normalize the attitudes of readers, especially those who are looking for a hero like Maggie. This type of dismissive, fend-for-themselves attitude towards dogs is irresponsible to perpetuate.

BOOK REVIEW: Night of Miracles

Berg, Elizabeth - Night of MiraclesNight of Miracles

Elizabeth Berg

In the first chapter of Night of Miracles, Lucille Howard characterizes her thinking as traditional, hopeful, whimsical, and characterized by magical thinking. This description could also describe the book as a whole. A stand-alone sequel to The Story of Arthur Truluv, Night of Miracles focuses on denizens of Mason, Missouri: Lucille, an octogenarian retired teacher who now gives baking classes; Tiny and Monica, star-crossed lovers; Abby, Jason, and son Lincoln who are ripped by a family tragedy; and sophisticated newcomer Iris who came to Mason fleeing her past.

Sweet and charming, the book contains short chapters written in vignette-style switch between the primary characters’ perspectives. At times, it’s hilarious. In one chapter, Iris interviews with Lucille to be her assistant. Lucille has prepared a short quiz for applicants, and their interaction as Lucille reviews Iris’ responses had me cackling.

Night of Miracles emphasizes the power of connection among community members who are stronger together than when facing challenges alone. It is in the vein of A Man Called Ove, the genre of grumpy old people turned soft genre, and while mostly light-hearted, it does pack an emotional punch at times. Still, it is not as complex as Fredrik Backman’s novel or as skillfully written as Olive Kitteridge.

I found some areas of the book problematic. More than one character is overweight and decides to diet. Though Tiny observes that women really diet for each other, not for men, the book perpetuates fat shaming by linking being overweight to being insecure. Additionally, I thought the book completely belittled veganism/vegetarianism. Though much of the criticism came from a particular character’s point of view, the actual vegetarians in the book started eating meat, as though being vegetarian or vegan was a burden to be shed.

Given the structure of the novel and the multiple points of view, the characters have less development than if the book focused on fewer of Mason’s citizens. I understand the choice to include a tapestry of voices and show their interconnectedness but the trade-off is a lack of depth in characterization.

Finally, although the book had a mystical tone, some elements were so unrealistic as to be jarring. For example, once character receives a call from a doctor on a Saturday who personally schedules her to come in the next day, a Sunday. Seems unlikely! The timeline of the book, which seems to run from October through December, seems too short for all the events that occur. I kept second-guessing myself and checking the contextual clues and holidays for confirmation.

Despite these issues, Night of Miracles is a quick and easy read–I finished it in one sitting–that was emotionally satisfying with sympathetic characters.

Thanks to Netgalley and Random House for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.