A sign flanking the Maine Turnpike near the New Hampshire border greets drivers as they file in from points south: “Maine. Welcome Home. The Way Life Should Be.” This seductive dictum, however, obscures less romantic landscapes within the borders of our state. Most of its residents live on roads where the 15.6 million tourists who visited in 2021 probably didn’t go: in communities damaged by toxic pollutants or opioids, bankrupted by government inaction, devoured by poverty, haunted by our country’s colonial past. Penobscot Nation—along with the rest of Maine’s Native population—has suffered all of the above.

In June 1972 a long ribbon of litigation began to unspool that obliged the Department of Justice to sue the state of Maine on behalf of the Passamaquoddy Tribe. Two weeks later, it filed suit on behalf of Penobscot Nation. The claims centered on the applicability of the Nonintercourse Act of 1790, a federal statute prohibiting the sale or confiscation of Native land without the express approval of Congress. Penobscots claimed, rightly, that the transfer of their land to Massachusetts (now Maine) in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries had broken this law, and they wanted their land back. At issue was the ownership of nearly two thirds of the entire state.1

In 1980 the lawsuit was settled, resulting in the federal Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act (MICSA) and its accompanying state legislation. In return for their vacated land claims, Penobscots were granted rights that supported tribal self-determination through self-governance, which, under federal Indian policy, other tribes across the country already enjoyed. At the time, most MICSA stakeholders considered this a victory for both the tribe and the state.

However, MICSA includes provisions that allow Maine to deem federal Indian policies void if they interfere with the application of Maine state law. As a result, Maine’s Wabanaki Nations—which include the Penobscots—are uniquely prevented from benefiting from these federal Indian policies, including the more than 150 laws passed since the signing of MICSA. They have been deprived of opportunities to determine how to regulate their own health care, housing, disaster response, and environmental protections. This has crushed their ability to prosper: while the incomes of nearly all other tribes under federal Indian policy have grown an average of 61 percent since the 1980s, the Wabanaki’s has increased a skimpy 9 percent. A recent report from Harvard University confirms that their “stark economic underperformance” is unique to Maine and rooted in the “restrictive construct of MICSA.”2

Moreover, the Penobscot River—a sixty-mile stretch of which encompasses more than two hundred islands that are part of Penobscot Nation, including Indian Island, the tribe’s seat of government and primary village—also remains managed by the state. Even as the water flows around and under their reservation, Penobscots can’t regulate it or the industrial toxics like dioxins that have been discharged thirty-five miles upstream by a paper mill for over a century. The river’s fish are so contaminated that Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife recommends people eat no more than one or two per month. Anyone consuming more could face reproductive problems; a weakened immune system; increased risk for kidney, testicular, or liver cancer; or a catalog of other bodily woes. Sustenance fishing is not just impossible—nobody can live off one or two fish a month—but potentially deadly. Industrial toxics can also harm indigenous wetland creatures like turtles and beavers. “For traditional Penobscots,” Darren J. Ranco, now the chair of Native American Programs at the University of Maine, wrote in 2000, “to harm these animals is to harm tribal members.”

According to the Wabanaki Alliance, which represents Maine’s tribes, there are 2,398 enrolled Penobscot members, with 417 living on Indian Island. The entirety of Penobscot Nation consists of about 4,900 acres of reservation land, including the islands in the river, as well as over 95,000 acres of managed trust land in nine territories across Maine. While the tribe is small, and perhaps to federal or state government of little political or fiscal concern, their predicament illustrates global environmental issues. So what does it mean to live in a nation that’s in pieces and parts, or under another government’s control—where the boundaries are as murky and hazardous as the pollution that runs through it?

In his essay “Landscape and Narrative,” Barry Lopez suggests that there are two landscapes with which the storyteller contends—“one outside the self, the other within.” He proposes that “the purpose of storytelling is to achieve harmony between the two landscapes…to reproduce the harmony of the land in the individual’s interior.” To violate this alignment, Lopez argues, is to violate narrative itself:

To make up something that is not there, something which can never be corroborated in the land, to knowingly set forth a false relationship, is to be lying…. For a storyteller to insist on relationships that do not exist is to lie. Lying is the opposite of story.

Morgan Talty, in his debut collection of short stories, Night of the Living Rez, inscribes his characters’ inner landscapes with the violence enacted upon their exterior landscapes, showing how difficult it is for them to flourish in such an environment. In doing so, he indicts the false rhetoric around our home state and presents Maine not as it should be, but as it is. This is a Maine story long overdue and an environmental story often left untold. But it’s a quiet book in many ways. Silences gather and losses accumulate, just as toxics accrue in a school of Penobscot fish.


In the foreground, a family of Penobscots (of which Talty is one). In the background, a fictionalized Penobscot Indian Nation Reservation (much like the one where Talty grew up), separated by a bridge from lands off the reservation. At the book’s heart is a boy named David, who as an adult goes by Dee, and who tries to be good despite everything keeping him from doing just that. David/Dee narrates these two phases of his life, but not chronologically and not at every age, so some movements occur offstage, with family and friends shuffling through scenes in a turnstile of instability. There’s David’s divorced mother, who calls him gwus (the Penobscot word for “little boy”) and whose presence is almost as sporadic as that of his older sister, Paige; his declining grandmother; his pill-popping, hard-drinking childhood friend, Fellis; and his lackluster stepfather, Frick, who claims he’s a medicine man while chugging boxed wine and clumsily performing his dubious rituals.

Even when they are present, these people are often as unsteady as the crooked steps and crooked door of David’s house. Early on, after David and his mother relocate to the reservation from somewhere in the south, Frick moves in “just as fast as Mom had unpacked.” In another story Dee visits his mother in a crisis stabilization unit, where she’s been prescribed Valium and clonazepam—for what, we don’t exactly know. There, she experiences a seizure, which lasts about a minute. “I’m holding on,” Dee says.

My mother is loosening, struggling to sit up as if it were the first time she ever rose, ever used her muscles. I’m rubbing her back, and I’m thinking about the cigarettes and the voice mails. The voice mails about the cigarettes she always wants. Right then I tell myself I will always bring her cigarettes.

Meanwhile, his sister is in rehab somewhere else, and his grandmother is sent to live at Woodlands, an eldercare facility where there are no woods but the dark forests of dementia. In another story Fellis receives electroconvulsive therapy treatments. “He looked so beat up,” Dee thinks. “His eyes were half shut, his expressions plain and simply devoid of any life, kind of like if you’d put two black dots and a straight line on an orange and called it a face.”

We are left to puzzle out what’s happened in the gaps. But Talty leaves plenty of dots for us to connect. David’s biological father lives down south and lingers in the margins of some of the stories, an absence as palpable as the loss of the “red alien guy,” a toy David accidentally drops in a crack between the front door and the stairs and imagines “getting sucked deeper and deeper into that thawing mud.” This constant motion doesn’t necessarily propel the characters forward. Like the plastic toy, they get swallowed up or anesthetized by circumstance, and evanesce in the periphery.

There’s a restrained tenderness in Talty’s writing, and in how his characters show compassion. After David gets sick from being made to smoke fourteen cigarettes by his grandmother, who thinks she’s teaching him a lesson about stealing blessing tobacco, Paige rubs his scalp and serves him ginger ale. It’s not just suffering Talty has brought us here to see, but love despite suffering, even if it’s a tiny gesture of comfort. His characters aren’t relics of the past, undead (per the title of the book), or gesticulating from a daguerreotype of Native life. They eat “freezer-burned orange creamsicles” and “bags full of double cheeseburgers” from McDonald’s, shop at TJ Maxx, play bingo, and gamble with dried spaghetti instead of cash.

Talty emphasizes the quietness of his characters’ lives, even if they’re in turmoil or somehow stuck. “Fellis and I were on the couch, watching reruns of The People’s Court and sipping warm Arizona Iced Tea,” Dee narrates after bringing Fellis home from his ECT treatments.


Beth baked chicken and made a green bean casserole…. As the cases came and went—as Beth walked back and forth from the living room to the kitchen—Fellis and I said, Fuck Judge Milian. We’d deliver the verdicts.

The book’s opening story begins:

Winter, and I walked the sidewalk at night along banks of hard snow. I’d come from Rab’s apartment off the reservation. Rab—this white guy with a wide mouth and eyes that closed up when he laughed—sold pot.

In a few sentences, Talty maps this world. Slippery, unshoveled sidewalks, the frozen river, a blocked bridge are all external barriers that reshape the characters’ lives—their paths also littered with Ativan, Adderall, booze, and cigarettes. Then Dee hears a strange noise:

Moonlight through bare tree limbs lit the swamp, and caught among the tree stumps and solid snow was a person sprawled out on the ground. He was trying to sit up but kept falling back, like he’d just done one thousand crunches and was too sore to do just one more.

It was Fellis…. He tried to sit up, but something pulled him back down….

“My hair,” he said.

I looked at it with the lighter’s flame. “Holy,” I said, and I laughed. Instead of the tight braid that shined, Fellis’s hair had come undone, and it was frozen into the snow.

Dee tries to pull Fellis’s hair out of the snow but it won’t come loose, and Fellis screams when he yanks at it:

“Lift your head up,” I said. I opened my pocketknife, and at the click of the blade Fellis spoke.

“Wait, wait,” he said. “Don’t cut it.”

“What do you want me to do? Tell the ice to let it go?… I have to cut it,” I said. “You ain’t getting out if I don’t…. You want me to cut my braid too?”

“I never thought I’d scalp a fellow tribal member,” Dee says after cutting Fellis’s braid. His joke underlines the brutal associations of scalping mingled with empathy for his friend. In scenes like this, Talty cloaks gloom with sarcasm and masks intimacy with teasing. “Humans are resilient, and the risky exhilaration of making one another laugh helps them to be,” Ian Frazier wrote in these pages in an essay on Native humor.3 But isn’t this what all humor tries to accomplish, not just Native humor?

Talty is also teasing us, daring his readers to designate Night of the Living Rez a collection “about” indigeneity or to appoint him a spokesperson for Native literature. With 574 federally recognized tribes, no one writer or book can represent them all. Talty’s stories contain details specific to being Penobscot, but this is only part of who his characters are. Instead of relying on harmful tropes, Talty restyles them again and again, holding cultural assumptions up to a light box, then turning out the light.4

In a book where little is nailed down, Fellis becomes trapped—by hair, body, addiction, lifestyle, land. Dee does too. At times it’s as if the land is haunted and seeking revenge on those who inhabit it. This seems especially true in a story called “In a Field of Stray Caterpillars.” Driving home from the hospital in Fellis’s truck, Dee and Fellis approach the bridge that connects the town to the reservation and see a yellow flashing sign that says “Drive Slow, Use Caution.” The road beyond is boiling with caterpillars:

Some were dead, run over by cars and trucks—it sounded like popcorn popping when we drove over them—and others were alive, crawling among the gooey dead in search of trees with leaves that they hadn’t already eaten, or of tree trunks that the Department of Natural Resources hadn’t wrapped in duct tape and smeared with petroleum jelly to save what leaves remained.

The smell “moved about the rez” and makes the two friends vomit.

In another story, “Food for the Common Cold,” a snapping turtle dies and rots under the house, and David thinks (riding over that same bridge to the island):

There was no escaping how those problems shaped us all, no escaping the end, like the way the ice melts in the river each spring, overflowing and creeping up the grassy banks and over lawns, reaching farther and farther toward the houses until finally the water touched stone, a gentleness before the river converged on the foundation, seeping inside and flooding basements, insulation swelling, drying only when the water has receded. What remained was a smell, a reminder that the water had come and risen up and would rise again, in time. I would never forget that car ride or that night at home: because we all found that smell, literally, and it was not subtle.

Such conditions reveal the conundrum of Penobscots living in Maine or anyone living on land they don’t have the agency to control.

Toward the end of the book, an atmosphere of zombification prevails. Dee goes blind, Frick becomes a monster, and Paige loses her baby—who “suffered terrible seizures from methadone withdrawal”—becoming catatonic in her grief. In the next-to-last story, which bears the same title as the book, there’s an acute menace afoot in the house. As in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Paige and David are attacked from all sides. We root for them to flee—but for them to do so would be a rejection of the place in which they have the most right to live. They are trapped.

There’s no medicine man or People’s Court coming to save the day in Talty’s fictional world. In an early story, after Paige’s loss, the family buries the remains on the riverbank at the northernmost point of the island, using a plastic tub that had held David’s toys. He expresses his uncertainty about being human in a land that often makes it difficult to be one:

We were all on the ground and in the cold sand, using our hands to shovel the sand back into the hole and over the tub…and I wondered if the river would undo our work when it rose up, ripping away the sand and sucking out my tub, taking it away forever and ever, carrying it downriver before dumping it out into the salty ocean.