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Review: In an eerie Cherokee novel, the ghosts and the grieving have their say

Author Brandon Hobson of "The Removed."
(From Brandon Hobson / Ecco)

On the Shelf

The Removed

By Brandon Hobson
Ecco: 288 pages, $27

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Ghosts lurk everywhere in “The Removed,” Brandon Hobson’s fourth novel, and looming largest among them is Ray-Ray Echota. An Oklahoma Cherokee, the teenager died when an officer “instinctively fired at the Indian,” then was cleared of any crime.

Fifteen years later, Ray-Ray’s family still holds a memorial on the anniversary of his murder, and most of the novel takes place in the days leading to that grim milestone, a time when many other shades gather as well. It’s early September, when Cherokees commemorate the Trail of Tears, among the worst acts of genocide ever perpetrated against Native Americans.

Overlapping tragedies weigh on the Echotas, and even the two best off, Ray-Ray’s mother, Maria, and sister Sonja, carry festering scars. Chapters in each woman’s point of view are braided throughout the novel with those tracking two men, but it’s Maria who raises the central question, early on: “How do you lose a child to gun violence and expect to return to a normal way of life?”

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No one is so scarred as younger brother Edgar, the latest of Hobson’s apparitions. At 21, he’s a meth head. His chapters travel to a reality very different from Maria’s and Sonja’s, the “Darkening Land.” Here the landscape is barren, “though it wasn’t winter,” and “gray-blue.” Marooned, Edgar finds company in his old homie Jackson, but little comfort: “Where would I even go?” Jackson asks. “Some other hellhole?”

Still, Jackson offers work, something to do with a sketchy video-game project, and he’s got a place to crash. Edgar sneaks a look at Jackson’s shelves: “I found strange old books. One on the occult, one on General Custer.”

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The juxtaposition speaks, well, volumes; “The Removed” covers both subjects. The novel never averts its eyes from the bloody doings of Custer and others like him, including the cop who gunned down Ray-Ray. For the Echotas, the torture never stops, and for Hobson it provides the narrative engine. His two women deliver real-world testimony as their grief contorts the love among them, Edgar and the father, Ernest. Yet what sets this novel apart, what stamps it as extraordinary, is the way it interweaves the grimly familiar with elements of fantasy, thereby illuminating both present and past.

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In surrealist mode, Hobson ranges far in his allusions, summoning everything from the Corn Maidens, the origin story for a number of tribes, to holograms à la “Star Trek.” The latter occurs in Edgar’s Darkening Land, but he’s not the only character adrift in a nightmare.

Equally otherworldly are the chapters narrated by the second male protagonist, Tsala. He is an ancestor of the Echotas, and they’ve all heard the story; the man fell on the Trail of Tears. When Tsala speaks for himself, however, he imbues the holocaust with magic:

“I saw a wind sweeping down into a dead body and giving birth to an eagle, who flew away into a red dawn. I saw bursts of fire in the sky and bodies trailing away like smoke.”

The metamorphosis suggests the phoenix, a creature hardly limited to Native mythology, and there’s a lot of such cultural blurring. Tsala even has a Rip Van Winkle story. But actual terrors forever intrude on the stuff of fable. “I saw a deaf boy running through a field while soldiers called for him to stop,” Tsala says; “when he didn’t, they shot him dead.” In the same way, Edgar’s bardo has its everyday horrors, including a game app named TRMP (for Torturous Radioactive Mud Pit) and casual racism. “Isn’t there a rain dance or something you could do?” asks Jackson.

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Like that wisecrack, Hobson’s style is colloquial throughout; he works in American plainsong even when summoning voices from beyond. If Tsala seems to trace a hero’s journey, it’s because of his subject matter, not any grandiose rhetoric, and the same applies for Maria’s deepest bouts of melancholy:

“I was consumed by an emptiness I tried to fill however I could: through prayer, meditation, journaling. For the first time in many years, I struggled to sleep at night, worried about Edgar and Ernest.”

The women speak in counterpoint to Edgar and Tsala — the men barely tethered to earth. Sonja at 31 is cantankerous, even carnal, rather the opposite of Maria, who plugs along heartsore. Yet parallels emerge, for instance between the mother’s journal entries and the daughter’s Colette novels. One writes, the other reads, and both demonstrate a solid grounding. Sonja’s sharp about men and their blind spots, Maria savvy about her husband’s worsening Alzheimer’s.

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Ernest’s health sets the greatest challenge for the contemporary family — the living family — as well as the best chance to achieve resolution over Ray-Ray. Mother, father and daughter enforce their bonds by briefly taking in a bubbly, brainy kid out of foster care. Over those few days, the story glimmers with possibilities. Then too, as the point of view continues to swing, both Edgar and Tsala discover an ambivalent promise of escape.

The whole comes together convincingly, the narratives attaining cosmic balance. Still, Hobson’s outstanding creations are the two women, their drama so rich you almost wonder why he bothered with the more bizarre business. But then, he’s already written a kitchen-sink novel, “Where the Dead Sit Talking,” a finalist for the 2018 National Book Award in fiction, without myth and magic — a clear departure from his wilder, more impulsive (and lesser known) 2015 novel “Desolation of Avenues Untold.” So when I call “The Removed” his finest accomplishment, I mean that it best harnesses his complete sensibility. Pulling out all the stops, he’s carved a striking new benchmark for fiction about Native Americans.

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