Once in a while, you come across a book that seems to exist in its own bubble of space-time. It may be set in the present, but its roots reach deep into the past. The location may be a real place, like Oklahoma, but as you read, you’re not really sure if it’s set anywhere in particular. A word for such a story might be numinous, which ably describes Brandon Hobson’s splendid The Removed.
The story revolves around the Echota family of Quah, Oklahoma, as they prepare for a bonfire to commemorate the death of their son Ray-Ray. Many years before, the teenage Ray-Ray was the victim of what’s called a “bad shoot” in police lingo. The remaining family consists of mother Maria; her husband, Ernest; their daughter, Sonja; and surviving son, Edgar. Maria is patient and caring as Ernest sinks deeper into what everyone believes is Alzheimer’s disease. Sonja is a restless loner, hooking up with and discarding younger men. Edgar, just as unsettled, is an addict. The family is mired in profound grief and trauma, including trauma from the forced removal of their Cherokee ancestors to Oklahoma in the 19th century. It’s not surprising, and may not even be a coincidence, that the anniversary of Ray-Ray’s death is also the anniversary of the beginning of the Trail of Tears.
Things start to change when Maria fosters a teenager named Wyatt. Exuberant, smart and talented, Wyatt can’t help but remind her of Ray-Ray. To Ernest, Wyatt is Ray-Ray reincarnated. And why couldn’t he be? In this novel, the ghosts of ancestors narrate entire chapters, animals may be familiars, Edgar stumbles into what seems like a smog-filled purgatory, and the very wind and water seem to be sentient.
Hobson, a National Book Award finalist for his novel Where the Dead Sit Talking, weaves strands of the past and present so skillfully that events that would be improbable in the hands of another author are inevitable in The Removed. More than anything, in the case of the beleaguered Echota family, Hobson understands William Faulkner’s adage, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”