- What: There There
- Who: Tommy Orange
- Pages: 290, hard cover
- Genre: Contemporary fiction
- Published: 2018
- The lit: of 5 flames
Wow. Some books just hit you where your emotions run deep. Some books bring unspoken conflict right into your hands. Some books make you question everything around you. And some books make you say “Wow.” There There is all of those, right from the beginning.
Read 10 pages of this powerful novel, and you’ll understand why it was on the best-of-2018 lists from Barack Obama, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly, Esquire, Thrillist, Time … you get my point. It’s easy to scoff a little at some of these lists. Reviewers (cough *me*) don’t know everything, and they’ve let readers down before (see here). But There There and its genius author, Tommy Orange, deserve every bit of prestige and attention they garnered in 2018. Orange’s heartbreaking story about Native American identity and experience is just that good.
“If you were fortunate enough to be born into a family whose ancestors directly benefited from genocide and/or slavery, maybe you think the more you don’t know, the more innocent you can stay, which is a good incentive to not find out, to not look too deep, to walk carefully around the sleeping tiger. Look no further than your last name. Follow it back and you might find your line paved with gold, or beset with traps.” — There There
There There follows many Native American generations and characters, and these are viewpoints we rarely see yet ones that must be told. Even better, we see these perspectives through a new lens. This book doesn’t take place in some remote area with a tipi, which is how Native stories are often told; rather, it places our characters in the urban setting where so many live.
The twelve characters in There There are all linked unbeknownst to one another, but their actions are leading them to the Big Oakland Powwow, in a tough city that has shown them pain. They have personal and distinct reasons for attending the gathering. Some are looking for redemption, some are searching for themselves and their history, and others want revenge.
Orvil Red Feather, for example, is a teenager yearning to learn his roots — despite the hesitancy from his guardian great-aunt. He’s been learning traditional Indian dance online and has been working up to a performance at the Big Oakland Powwow. Another character, Blue, is a 42-year-old woman who was adopted by white parents but became intrigued by her Native heritage and their ceremonies. This is how she met her now-abusive husband from whom she’s recently escaped. Dene Oxendene is trying to finish the work his alcoholic dead uncle started: a documentary about the Native American experience. And Edwin Black has wasted four years in front of a screen, but the promise of meeting his Native father has inspired him to discover his ancestry and do more for himself than start fake online identities and play video games.
“We are the memories we don’t remember, which live in us, which we feel, which make us sing and dance and pray the way we do, feelings from memories that flare and bloom unexpectedly in our lives like blood through a blanket from a wound made by a bullet fired by a man shooting us in the back for our hair, for our heads, for a bounty, or just to get rid of us.” — There There
All of the stories Orange tells illustrate pain, recovery, and discovery of a voice too often falsely portrayed and even forgotten in our country: that of the original American. How often, rather than recognizing their importance in our country, do we appropriate them in pop culture or at the very least turn a blind eye when we see it? How often do we assume being Native means living a certain way and having only one set of customs? How often do we consider someone with Native American blood as “other.”
Orange, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma, declares our faults with powerful essays in the prologue and interlude, which remind us that his fictional story is all too real. On page 9, he writes, in reference to his history:
“We were not Urban Indians then. This was part of the Indian Relocation Act, which was part of the Indian Termination Policy, which was and is exactly what it sounds like. Make them look and act like us. Become us. And so disappear.”
Our wrongs aren’t buried so far in history when our past is walking with us every day.
“Being Indian has never been about returning to the land. The land is everywhere or nowhere.” — an excerpt from There There‘s prologue
Orange gives us harsh realities, pain, and mistakes, and he packs them all with a punch. He’s a poet who excels in prose and can write one great line after the next. He moves these words along with pacing that fits perfectly with his story line. For two-thirds of the novel, Orange introduces his characters and all of the ups and downs they’ve experienced. He doesn’t rush this foundation and gives the characters the proper time to develop.
However, when we get to part three — the powwow and the climax — he clears all explication and makes way only for plot. Finally, all of the characters are together in the Oakland Colosseum when chaos breaks out. Orange shortens his sentences and chapters and does away with flowery writing. His words symbolize the tumult the characters are encountering. You can feel the characters running scared and frantic. This powerful device gives you a front-row seat to pandemonium and pain.
“Some of us got this feeling stuck inside, all the time, like we’ve done something wrong. Like we ourselves are something wrong.” — There There
“It’s the close-up work that puts this novel across, however, the quotidian details of blasted lives,” he writes. “That Orange manages to link these details to a historical sense of outrage at how America has treated its native people, in a manner that approaches scarifying essay without dropping over the fence into lecture or sociology, adds to this novel’s smoke.”
Garner’s right. Orange has accomplished a great feat: He forces us to recognize a new perspective and to feel emotions felt by the real-life characters who inspire a novel. He doesn’t lecture. He doesn’t list facts. He gives us the truth on a much deeper level. This is fiction at its best and why the world has been urged to read this novel.
“It seemed both right and like the wrongest shit possible.” — There There