Soon after his first novel, "Where the Dead Sit Talking," was named a finalist for the 2018 National Book Award, Brandon Hobson wrote an amazing essay in LitHub about his grandfather, who had recently died with a notebook in his lap full of stories he'd been translating from Cherokee into English. The author of the stories was an ancestor of Hobson's named Tsala, who had hidden his family in caves during the Trail of Tears in the 1830s but was later executed along with his son for refusing to be relocated.
"I take the notebook with me everywhere, always thinking about it," Hobson wrote in the essay. In particular, "What does it say about death and the spirit world?"
"The Removed" is his meditation on this question; it's a beautiful, elegiac narrative that seamlessly blends the real and supernatural and features the shape-shifting spirit of Tsala himself among the four point-of-view characters. The novel takes place over the first six days of September leading up to a bonfire honoring the anniversary of the death of Ray-Ray Echota, a funny, artistic, high-energy A student who had died in a racially motivated police shooting 15 years before.
The Echota family's grief is unimaginable. The mother, Maria, gets through her days on Xanax, journaling, and the necessity of caring for her husband, who is in the early stages of Alzheimer's. The sister, Sonja, who lives down the road from her parents in Quah, Okla., fills the void with sexual desire, notably for a wannabe rocker with a violent streak. And the brother, Edgar, a meth addict, is adrift in Albuquerque. His girlfriend has left him. He's not answering his family's pleas to come home for the bonfire. Instead, he wanders through the fog and boards a train for a place called the Darkening Land, a Stygian world out of a horror movie, of "dumpy houses" and falling apart buildings, trees with "cracked faces in them," and bars haunted by the ghosts of suicides.
Back in the world of the living, hope appears in the form of a bright, enchanting foster child named Wyatt, who Maria takes in. As the anniversary day approaches, she begins to notice that her husband's memory, miraculously, has begun to come back. "That boy gives me a good feeling," he says. "It's Ray-Ray. He's come home."
Wyatt's arrival is only one of several visitations of spirits that occur throughout this wondrous, deeply felt book. The past is present, the Trail of Tears ongoing. The Cherokee stories of "vengeance and forgiveness" are alive. And for the Echotas and others who long to commune with the spirits of the dead: as Tsala says, "We reveal ourselves to those who look."
Porter Shreve is the author of four novels. He directs the creative writing program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
By: Brandon Hobson.
Publisher: Ecco, 288 pages, $26.99.