Tommy Orange’s debut novel, There There is an important read for everyone. Told from multiple voices and from a multitude of perspectives, this is the story of twelve Native Americans that are each pilgriming to a pow wow in Oakland, CA. Each character is coming for their own reason — some to honor their history; some to discover their unclaimed roots; some to document their heritage; others to steal the pow wow award money. Each character also comes with varying degrees of connection to their native culture and traditions. And finally, each character reveals their own struggle with the hope and despair that is built into their psyche, as a result of their complicated and traumatic history.
But Orange cleverly weaves this chorus of voices into one complex and interconnected web, akin to a modern-day atonal symphony. In portraying such a large cast of characters, Orange reveals one of the central themes of the book — that Native Americans don’t share a single identity. Orange demonstrates the diversity of a group that our society has historically homogenized or stereotyped. One more aha moment for me, that makes me want to cringe with humiliation for our nation’s treatment of Native Peoples throughout history.
There There is also important and fresh because it reveals the distinct Urban Native experience. In his non-fiction prologue to the book, Orange comments,
“Urban Indians 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 other deep wild forest. We know the sound of the freeway better than we do rivers, the howl of distant trains better than wolf howls, we know the smell of gas and freshly wet concrete and burned rubber better than we do the smell of cedar or sage or even fry bread …..”
By exploring the Urban Native experience, Orange reveals the impact of the fractured diaspora of the Native American culture. Hence the title of the book which is taken from a Gertrude Stein quote, “There is no There There.” Meaning the land that once belonged to their people is no longer recognizable. There is no going back because it is no longer there. Perhaps that is the significance of centering the plot around an intertribal pow wow. In a culture where traditions are fragile, the pow wow is the one place where people come together to try to figure out what belonging means to the Native American.
And finally I found the novel important from a stylistic perspective. In one cinematic, climatic finale, Orange brings all the characters together in an exploding final scene that is filled with tension and raw energy. Characters flash before our eyes in a battery of sequences that feel better suited to Quentin Tarantino film, than a book. But it is brilliant in its delivery, every piece finally clicking together seamlessly for the reader. I found it satisfying and immensely entertaining in its visual and visceral conclusion.
So I encourage you to pick up a copy of There There, if for no other reason than to dispel the myth of the singular Native American experience and identity. We can’t undo the past. But we can learn to respect and appreciate cultures that differ from our own.
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