There There by Tommy Orange


This one will make my list of favorites for the year.

The world of Native Americans in this country is hard to imagine and painful to confront. The confinement to reservations is somewhat familiar to us; this book brings us into the world of urban Native Americans, in this case, in Oakland. The author introduces many characters and slowly reveals the connections among them.  The narrative moves toward one major event:  a powwow that occurs in the Oakland Coliseum. Tony Loneman, the first character introduced was asked what a powwow is. ‘We dress up Indian, with feathers and beads and shit. We dance. Sing and beat this big drum, buy and sell Indian shit like jewelry and clothes and art,’ I said.” As we visit and revisit each character we learn about their connections to their heritage and some speak movingly of drumming or dancing.  Thomas describes it this way:

Thomas stands up to stretch. He really does feel good. Singing and drumming had done that thing, that all-the-way-there thing he needs to feel that full, that complete feeling, like you’re right where you’re supposed to be right now–in the song and about what the song’s about.

The title refers to the Gertrude Stein quote we’ve all heard that refers to the area in Oakland where she grew up.  She said, “there is no there there.” One of the characters in this book, Dene Oxendene says, “she was talking about how the place had changed so much, that so much development had happened there, that the there of her childhood, the there there was gone, there was no there there anymore.” And later he adds, “But for Native people in this country, all over the Americas, it’s been developed over, buried ancestral land, glass and concrete and wire and steel, unreturnable covered memory. There is no there there.”

The narrative unfolds in a unique way:  after each character is introduced in a chapter, the momentum builds toward the powwow through the events that occur to each of the characters. Sometimes the character’s actions and thoughts are told in the third person, sometimes the character speaks in the first person.  The message from the outset is clear:  the powwow will be disrupted by bad actors. Even the bad actors’ lives are given a hearing and we see the background for their motivations. One was a smart high school kid who learned how to create 3D printed guns. He, with his high school brain, was willing to do this to make money to help his mother who had been devastated by the death of his brother.

Three teen and pre-teen brothers were among my favorite characters. I loved this interaction:

They spend their fountain money and go up to the second deck to eat. The fry bread is wide and the meat and grease are deep.

“Man. That’s good,” Orvil says.

“Pffft,” Loother says. “Quit trying to talk Indian.”

“Shut up. What am I supposed to sound like, a white boy?” Orvil says.

“Sometimes you sound like you wanna be Mexican,” Lony says. “Like when we’re at school.”

“Shut up,” Orvil says.

It was a struggle for me to keep the many characters straight and I was glad to have the search feature of the kindle to easily find previous references to each one. It was so worth the effort.

Tommy Orange, There There, Alfred A. Knopf, 2018, 294 pages (I read the kindle version). Available from the UVa and public libraries, and from Amazon.

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