Where the Dead Sit Talking
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.