Book review: There There by Tommy Orange

 In Opinion

“There’s no there there,” Gertrude Stein said about her hometown Oakland, California. Today that phrase is often applied to a person or place that has no distinctive identity. By borrowing the last two words of the quotation as the title of his new novel, native American writer Tommy Orange is out to show that on the contrary, contemporary, urban native Americans, are very much ‘there” after all.

Yet, as they prepare to converge on a traditional powwow being held in Oakland, each of the 12 characters in There There (Alfred A. Knopf, 2018) is in the same predicament, caught between two worlds, struggling to reconcile their traditional culture with their modern lives.

“Urban Indians,” observes the narrator, “feel at home walking in the shadow of a downtown building. We came to know the downtown Oakland skyline better than we did any sacred mountain range, the redwoods in the Oakland hills better than any deep wild forest.”

Orange, who is a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma, in a recent interview said, that he wrote the novel because, “you already find Native people in fiction, but there aren’t many representations of us as modern, contemporary and living in cities.”

A traditional pow wow, held at the Oakland Coliseum is the setting for the coming together of both worlds. As the book’s narrator says “…there aren’t many places we get to be all together, where we get to see and hear each other.”

Orvil Red Feather, is going to the pow wow so he can take part in a traditional dance ceremony that he has learned by watching YouTube videos. Blue is hoping to find the mother she has never met. Edwin Black is helping to organize the powwow as a means of overcoming his video addiction and anxiety. Each is confronting a very contemporary issue in a very traditional setting.

The novel begins and ends with Tony Loneman. Full of rage, Tony is seeking revenge for what he refers to as his curse:  “the drome,” short for fetal alcohol syndrome, “Maybe I’m’a do something one day, and everybody’s gonna know about me. Maybe that’s when they’ll finally look at me, because they’ll have to.” 

Although he wears traditional native costume to the powwow, Tony is armed with a gun made with a 3-D printer. He is going as a member of a street gang intent on robbing the event. This planned heist adds tension and a compelling twist to the novel.

Throughout the novel, Orange offers observations about the historical injustices suffered by first nations people such as the real origins of Thanksgiving and the Indian Relocation Act. As the narrator reflects, “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 be.”

This is a powerful novel that tells the story of a people trying to reconcile the past with the present.

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