There There by Tommy Orange won the PEN/Hemingway Award and the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize for best debut novel of 2018. It was heralded as one of the Best Books of 2018 by some of the leading news organizations and magazines for good reason. This book wrecked me. If you want a greater understanding of the plight of urban Native Americans, this is a must-read.
The novel opens with an essay by Orange and segues into chapters that follow the seemingly disparate lives of 12 characters from Native communities as they travel to the Big Oakland Powwow, where they come together for the books devastating climax.
The title comes from a Gertrude Stein quote about Oakland, “There is no there there.” Orange understands that for Native people in America this is true — America “has been developed over, ancestral lands have been buried in glass and concrete, wire and steel” – there is no way to recover what has been lost. There is no there there. And this is a central theme of Orange’s: the loss of identity and culture. It is an ugly story, a shameful story that Orange addresses in his opening essay: the broken promises, the massacres, the pillaged land, the usurped culture, the loss of understanding of what it means to be Indian.
Dene Oxendene is Native, born and raised in Oakland. He goes to the Powwow to record the stories of other urban natives.
Jacquie Red Feather, recently sober, mourns the loss of one daughter to suicide and another to adoption. Her half sister, Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield is raising Jacquie’s three grandsons, Orvil, Loother, and Lony. Opal has not raised them as Cheyenne, in fact has been openly against any of them doing anything “Indian,” too many risks she said. “Cheyenne way, we let you learn for yourself, then teach you when you’re ready.” Of the three, Orvil is the most curious, trying on regalia he finds in Opal’s closet and watching YouTube videos of dancers, he vows that he will dance at the Big Oakland Powwow.
Tony Loneman was born with fetal alcohol syndrome, which he refers to as the Drome. His eyes, mouth, and nose are set too far apart on his face. “Like a drunk slapped it on reaching for another drink,” Orange writes. His IQ hangs at the lower end of the scale. The Drome, he says, is “the way history lands on a face.”
Daniel Gonzalez learns to code from YouTube, buys a 3D printer and starts making guns as a way to support himself and his mother, who is depressed after the death of his brother and rarely gets out of bed. His guns will play largely into the devastating climax of the novel.
Most of the characters in There There are estranged from their heritage in one way or another, but perhaps none more completely than Blue, who was adopted at birth by a white family, referred to by Orange as “an apple – red on the outside and white on the inside.” Through a series of serendipitous career moves, she finds herself as the event planner for the Big Oakland Powwow, a place where her past and future collide.
There There is a novel that requires your attention, for many reasons – historically, culturally, and aesthetically. You won’t be able to read it through without doubling back to make the connections between characters, but this careful reading will pay off in the end.
I recommend There There for fans of Sherman Alexie, Louise Erdich, Linda LeGarde Grover, and Susan Powers.