Brandon Hobson's remarkable, moving novel, Where the Dead Sit Talking, follows 15-year-old Sequoyah as he becomes the foster child of Harold and Agnes Troutt, a middle-aged couple already fostering 13-year-old George and 17-year-old Rosemary. Sequoyah bonds with Rosemary over their shared Native American heritages—he is Cherokee, she Kiowa. Sequoyah also learns of Harold’s illegal sports bookie business from his foster siblings, and the lure of Harold’s hidden sacks of rolled hundred-dollar bills, tucked safely in a backyard shed, tempt all three children with the possibility for trouble, excess, and freedom. Hobson, a member of the Cherokee Nation Tribe, picks 10 essential Native American novels.
The 10 essential Native American novels I’ve listed here are in no specific order. I’ve chosen 10 novels I love, but there are plenty of others I would consider essential, many of which are written by the people on this list. While these writers are important to me as a reader, a writer, and as a Cherokee, I should add that there are also many short story collections, books of poetry, and memoirs that represent an active campaign for the traditions and values of Native American culture. And while this list contains such well-established writers as Momaday and Erdrich, there are newer, younger Native American writers out there right now creating amazing works of art—people like Layli Long Soldier, Terese Mailhot, and Tommy Orange, whose names and works will become (are already becoming) a powerful and constructive force in Native American literature.
1. House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday
Momaday's House Made of Dawn won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969, which alone should tell you how great it is. It's the story of a World War II veteran named Abel who returns home to try and adjust to living back in the world he once lived in, but he struggles, gets drunk a lot and fights and then commits a murder that lands him in jail for a while. Once he gets out of jail his struggles only continue. While all that may sound dark, this is ultimately a novel of hope as Abel learns to embrace his Native American heritage. Sad and beautiful, required reading.
In an old Cherokee myth, a bear is a representation of greed and satisfaction, so the title of this historical novel refers to the struggles the Cherokees endured on the Trail of Tears when they were removed from their land. As my own great-great-great grandmother walked and survived the Trail of Tears, I felt especially drawn to Maritole, the narrator, who serves as a voice for all the women as they are forced from their homes. Though Maritole serves as primary narrator, there are other voices throughout the book: Maritole’s husband, for example, who feels helpless; her father, who manages somehow to cling to hope; and other voices contribute to the desperation and helplessness. A very good novel detailing one of the saddest and cruelest episodes in U.S. history.
3. Shell Shaker by LeAnne Howe
A book about powerful Native American women, Shell Shaker by LeAnne Howe deals with the murder of two Choctaw chiefs, as well as decolonization and corruption, as told in two time periods, modern day and 200 years earlier. The first chief, Red Shoes, was killed by his own people, while in present day a Choctaw woman named Auda Billy is accused of murdering the second. How the two murders are connected, and how the spirit, Shell Shaker, plays a role is what motivates the reader through this urgent book. Howe is a brilliant stylist, and this novel shows it.
Erdrich's Tracks is the third in a series of family saga novels, the first two being Love Medicine and Beet Queen, respectively. Tracks is my favorite, though, for its language and vivid imagery. Told in alternating narrators, Nanapush and Pauline, Erdrich brilliantly threads their narratives together into a powerful story. In Nanapush's sections, he is talking to his granddaughter, Lulu, in an attempt to reunite her with her mother, who had sent Lulu off to government school when she was young. The second narrator, Pauline, tells of her connection to Lulu's mother and how Pauline became jealous of her, which begins a descent into witchery and madness. Beautiful and haunting.
5. Sundown by John Joseph Mathews
I can practically walk into Osage County from my house, which is eerie to think about when I consider everything that happens in Mathews's haunting novel. As a mixed-blood Osage, Challenge (Chal) struggles to find his identity among the Osage tribe and the white society, but what's most interesting about this book is the impact the discovery of oil on Osage land had on the tribe, and how they were affected and controlled by money, by oil. Lots and lots of oil, which is still very prevalent in Oklahoma today. With all the recent interest in Killers of the Flower Moon, readers should find Mathews's historical novel very enlightening.
6. Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko
In any Native American Literature course you'll likely read Silko's Ceremony, a novel known for its complexities involving various timelines dealing with a World War II veteran of Laguna Pueblo descent named Tayo. Even though we follow Tayo through parts of his childhood and his adult life in the war, the book also focuses on three evil spiritual entities who try to destroy Tayo. Real world threads with spiritual world, with medicine men, Spirits, and all sorts of strange witchery. Ceremony is a book about family, war, mental health, and most importantly—healing.
A coming of age story about Omishito, a teenage girl belonging to the Taiga tribe, torn between the harsh modern world and the spiritual world of her Aunt Ama, who kills an endangered panther the tribe considers sacred. What follows is a trial involving her aunt and the tribe. Hogan’s prose is beautiful—she’s a poet, after all—so it’s no surprise this novel is written with such precision, told in a youthful and powerful voice.
8. The Fast Red Road: A Plainsong by Stephen Graham Jones
This list should include one book that stands apart from the others in both style and tone, and that book is The Fast Red Road: A Plainsong, which is a wild, hallucinatory novel about an aimless man named Pidgin del gato, who returns to New Mexico to bury his father only to discover someone has stolen his father’s body. If the name sounds quirky, there are even quirkier ones: Birdfinger, Patience Patience, and Psychic Sally, to name a few. As Pidgin searches for his father’s body with his compadre, the two men encounters a multitude of strange and dangerous situations as well as a number of eccentric characters, including the remnants of a radical tribe known as the Goliards, with which his father was involved. If all this sounds like wild fun, that’s because it is.
9. Winter in the Blood by James Welch
“I was as distant from myself as a hawk from the moon,” the young, unnamed narrator tells us. Welch’s deeply moving novel deals with a young man’s struggle with loneliness, alienation, and identity as he tries to make sense of death and the world around him. Welch’s spare novel is quiet but forceful in its urgency and pacing. I haven’t seen the film, but the novel is gritty, dark, essential reading.
Sadly, Louis Owens committed suicide in 2002, but he left behind some great books, including The Sharpest Sight, which is about a Vietnam veteran confined to a mental hospital after murdering his girlfriend. His body is later found in a river. While the mystery is unfolding, the novel also takes on a magical-realist element, with ghosts and nature and spirits inhabiting its world. A harrowing and gut-wrenching novel.