There There by Tommy Orange | Book Review

Even before There There was nominated for the 2018 National Book Award, I’ve been hearing about it on YouTube where I’m an active participant (click to watch). I also take an active interest in reading books by people from diverse backgrounds and I haven’t read a lot from native American authors so this one checks a lot of my boxes.

Synopsis from the publisher

There There is a relentlessly paced multigenerational story about violence and recovery, memory and identity, and the beauty and despair woven into the history of a nation and its people. It tells the story of twelve characters, each of whom have private reasons for traveling to the Big Oakland Powwow. Jacquie Red Feather is newly sober and trying to make it back to the family she left behind in shame. Dene Oxendene is pulling his life back together after his uncle’s death and has come to work at the powwow to honor his uncle’s memory. Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield has come to watch her nephew Orvil, who has taught himself traditional Indian dance through YouTube videos and has come to the powwow to dance in public for the very first time. There will be glorious communion, and a spectacle of sacred tradition and pageantry. And there will be sacrifice, and heroism, and unspeakable loss.

Book Details

    • Title: There There
    • Author: Tommy Orange
    • Genre: Literary Fiction
    • Format: Hardcover
    • Pages: 294

My Take On The Book

The prologue contain a collection of essays on the history of Native Americans, at least in the context of their interactions with Europeans, their representation in the media and the legacy of disrespect and mistreatment, even when that treatment is a result of our ignorance. Given that the book started in this way. I was wary of what message the author would be sending on the rest of the pages. Set in California’s Oakland community, There There is about the fleeting location of the places we visit in our best memories.

Major Characters

Tony Loneman‘s story appears on pages 15 to 26 with the opening line: The Drome first came to me in the mirror when I was six. The Drome is Tony’s term for the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome that left him with a facial disfigurement and low intelligence quotient, but it’s his mother serial bad choice that has landed her in jail and forced him to live with his grandmother and sells drugs to make money.

Dene Oxendene is a mixed race has only just met his uncle when he finds out he’s dying but Lucas leaves Dene with a gift – an idea to get Natives to share their stories, free from interference and influence of the recorder. It is in this narrative that we learn about the title of the book: There There being that the place(there) that we visit in our memories no longer exists.

When Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield and her sister Jacquie pack up their sparse belongings and move into a jail cell in January 1970, it is because their mother has been beaten up again and they have been evicted from their home. On Alcatraz, their mother reveals the cancer diagnosis that will claim her soon after they return to the mainland, but not before Jacquie meets a boy on the island and has her life forever changed by the experience. Later, Opal adopts Jacquie’s grandsons – Lony, Orvil and Loother

Edwin Black has an Master’s Degree in comparative literature with a  focus on Native American literature but he feels like a fraud. His white mother has never revealed the identity of his native American father so while he writes abstractly, he doesn’t even know which tribe he belongs to. He spends his days chained to his computer, looking for his father and eating through his frustration and pining over the loss of his mother to her new boyfriend Bill.

Bill Davis is forcing himself to forge a relationship with his girlfriend Karen’s 30-year-old son that he doesn’t respect, because the tech-savvy Edwin is far too coddled while Bill is an ex-con who knows a thing or two about hard work, even if drones are now infiltrating his maintenance job at the stadium.

Calvin Johnson is living with his sister Maggie while he saves up to repay a drug debt but their brother and his crony, Charles and Carlos, have lost patience and are making him face up to their dealer, Octavio. Calvin suspects that what happened at the powwow was no accident, but that these others guys have set him up.

At first glance, There There seems to be a collection of character sketches but it is undoubtedly a novel and one that overlays multiple perspectives, storytelling styles and time periods and climaxes at The Big Oakland Powwow. I admire the way the story seems to be set within a story in that we have Dene the documentarian as one of the main characters who seems to be collecting the experiences written on the page; that Dene is white-passing and pays the storytellers for their contributions, both values and limits their lives by putting a price on them. In this way, then, the author expertly recalls some of the native history of compromise and of selling their birthright and indeed their stories. I’m not a great fan of the magical elements but the book wouldn’t be an authentic representation of Native history without including their regard for the spirit realm. Tommy Orange also incorporates other elements to comment on native history – a white 3-D printed gun that is used to cause mayhem at the Powwow. That the weapon is is white and dangerous without appearing threatening (more white-passing references?) and originates from something that could be used for good but instead is being used to fulfill mercenary and corrupt desires, took the figurative meaning of this book to the next level for me.

Elements of There There will remind you of LaRose by Louise Erdrich and  The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indianby Sherman Alexie, both of which novelize current Native American experiences, as well Marlon James’ brilliant Booker prize winning novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings for the way Orange also traces not just a generation but an entire multiverse of political and social issues coming to head in what should be a celebration of culture.

Click below to buy a copy through my affiliate link and help me buy more books to review

Book Depository


What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts as well.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s