There There by Tommy Orange
Published by Knopf
Publication date: June 5, 2018
Genres: Book Clubs, Contemporary, Cultural, Debut, Fiction, Literary
Your Local Book Store, Amazon
One of the downsides of reading a lot is the feeling that, while you still enjoy most of what you read, some of it tends to sound familiar—as if you’ve read it before. Which is not unreasonable, as ‘how many truly distinct plots there are in fiction’ is a subject of debate even among critics. Still, it makes it that much more exciting when I come upon something wholly unexpected that leaves me reeling. In this case it is Tommy Orange’s debut There There, an explosive novel representing a view of America few of us have ever considered and that our country as a whole would rather forget…or ignore.
There There is the story of twelve Native Americans as they make their way to Oakland, California for the Big Oakland Powwow.
We made powwows because we needed a place to be together. Something intertribal, something old, something to make us money, something we could work toward, for our jewelry, our songs, our dances, our drum. We keep powwowing because there aren’t very many places where we get to all be together, where we get to see and hear each other.
There is Orvil, a teenager who’s going to dance in a competition to earn some much-needed cash for his family; Jacquie, a middle-aged woman coming back home after decades away spent trying to straighten out her life after giving her daughter up for adoption at 17 and having a second daughter die; and Dene Oxendene, a young man making a documentary of Native Americans of all ages telling their stories. There are young men for whom a life of crime is the only way to make a living and another whose passion for coding has led him to the same place. They are people trying to get on and get by with life in whatever way they can and while their tribes may be different, their culture and the need to celebrate it is the same.
Alcoholism is the constant that pours through There There. Every character is either an alcoholic or is impacted by someone who is. Written with a bleak starkness Orange doesn’t make any excuses, simply states it as a fact of Native American life. Which, when considered, is not surprising. To go from being the proud inhabitants of a land to a people robbed of that land, stripped of their culture and even their names? How can such a loss of identity lead to anything other than unimaginable despair?
Through plain speech and scorching prose Orange raises eloquence to a new level. In the prologue paragraphs such as this
Some of us came to cities to escape the reservation. We stayed after fighting in the Second World War. After Vietnam too. We stayed because the city sounds like a war, and you can’t leave a war once you’ve been, you can only keep it at bay—which is easier when you can see and hear it near you, that fast metal, that constant firing around you, cars up and down the streets and freeways like bullets. The quiet of the reservation, the side-of-the-highway towns, rural communities, that kind of silence just makes the sound of your brain on fire that much more pronounced.
flay the reader as to the facts of our government’s systematic policy to obliterate and subjugate Native Americans. With each sentence there is more reason to cringe and rightly so. But Orange doesn’t take his recitation of facts about the lies in American history into There There. Instead, he takes disparate people from multiple tribes and attaches them to one another with the fine threads of blood and family. They are all heading to the powwow for different reasons, but as the incredibly talented Orange spins these loose threads together the cloth tightens into a complex tapestry of rich heritage, culture, and spirituality. Orange is a voice that demands to be heard and this is a novel that should make us listen.
Excellent review! This is going on my must-read list. I’ve been seeing a lot of buzz about it. I’m glad that there are more Native American voices in literature, and I hope there will be more. Louise Erdrich is the main one that comes to mind, and the only one that I can think of that I’ve read.
Thank you! I haven’t read her in awhile, but (and I could be completely wrong) I feel as if Orange hit much harder at the role our government played in where Native Americans are now. The closest I can come to him is another new writer, Terese Marie Mailhot. Her memoir Heart Berries is an emotional punch and her style even more unusual.