Columns

Family

In one of the recent Northern California Osage language classes, Wakonze Celena Noear spent time talking about clans and her family, names carried down in Wah Zha Zhe ie, pride and affection in her voice. In his Edmond class, Wakonze Mogri Lookout told a story about a family vacation in Wyoming with his Dad and Smokey and two Crow guys they spoke to. We shared the joy of that day long ago.

Two best-selling Cherokee authors have published prize-winning novels focused on family. Osages have history with our Cherokee neighbors. Before the Trail of Tears, there were stories of migration and displacement, warfare and intense conflict. Today, we’re neighbors in northeastern Oklahoma. Many of us have mixed Osage, Cherokee blood.

While the tenor of each novel is different, Osage readers can find a familiar landscape in Brandon Hobson’s The Removed (Ecco, 2021) and Kelli Jo Ford’s Crooked Hallelujah (Grove Press, 2020). Each novel is narrated by multiple characters’ points of view.

Both novels consider traumatic events in the present and in past generations. While each story reflects both the devotion and struggle within families, it’s the focus on healing, resilience and ultimately redemption that make them remarkable. The affirmation that in difficult and essential ways, family gets us through.

In February 2021, Brandon Hobson released The Removed, a novel that considers the legacy of the Trail of Tears and ongoing violence against Native people interwoven with the promise of healing. The novel moves beyond a recital of the history of the Trail of Tears to a more encompassing embodiment of its impact, to ongoing racism and echoes of the spirit world in Cherokee mythology. It’s an incredible work that ranges from an exploitative developer of video games, to a methamphetamine addict struggling to accept his family’s help, to Wyatt, a luminous foster child whose presence brings healing and light to an elderly couple struggling with the husband’s Alzheimer’s. Like Maria Echota in the novel, Hobson and his own mother have worked in social services. His experience with the child welfare system also informed his award-winning 2018 novel, Where The Dead Sit Talking.

As a writer, reading Brandon Hobson’s novel The Removed was the delight of watching a virtuoso. As the story unfolded in unexpected ways, I marveled at how imaginative he was, how far he carried themes and characters and how right it seemed.

Crooked Hallelujah is Kelli Jo Ford’s debut novel in stories released in 2020. Ford considers three generations of Cherokee family and the matriarchs who hold them together. It’s inspired by Ford’s own experience living in a four-generational household.

The story is set in the Cherokee Nation in a family belonging to a very conservative Holiness church and focuses on women and the choices they make. Justine makes a life for herself and her daughter moving between Texas and her childhood home in the Cookson Hills.

Stories reflect the intimacy between grandmothers and grandchildren, as Justine’s daughter, Reney, climbs into bed to sleep with her grandmother, and later when she climbs into bed in the afternoon to read with her stepfather’s mother. Ford told NPR shortly after the book came out that “when I was little, I slept with my great-grandmother a whole lot. We just had these generational bonds.”

One of the delights of reading Crooked Hallelujah is finding a reference to Hominy. Ford used her own great-grandmother’s journal for inspiration. In characterization that says everything about values, concerned about her grandson “who never could stay out of trouble,” Annie Mae writes that she should have sent him to live in Hominy with her sister. “Celia married an Indian like she should. A big Osage who spoke his language and went to college.”

As much as Osages need family and our cultural homes in Pawhuska, Hominy or Grayhorse, many of us live at some distance. Ford, who left home after high school, acknowledges the cost of living away. She told NPR “there's this tension of wanting to leave and wanting to live in literal different landscapes and wanting to live in cities and still wanting to be close to your family. And it's not easy. You know, it doesn't get easier as you get older.” 

Both novels offer the deep pleasure of seeing your culture and values examined, of reading someone who knows your community. I’m grateful for these books that honor families by conveying the complexity and joy they contain, grateful to see people, landscapes, and values I recognize on the page.