At the beginning of this year, I admitted to a blind spot I’d noticed in my reading habits: I hadn’t read any books by or about Native American people in several years. I decided that needed to change, so I began searching for novels to start with. One of top-rated books I found was There There by Tommy Orange, a book I’d actually had on my radar for a couple of years. I was glad when it was (serendipitously!) chosen as my book club’s next read. Following Winter Counts last month, this is my second book by a Native author so far this year.
|There There by Tommy Orange|
|Setting||United States: California|
|Number of Pages||290|
|Publication Date||June 5, 2018|
Tommy Orange’s wondrous and shattering novel follows twelve characters from Native communities: all traveling to the Big Oakland Powwow, all connected to one another in ways they may not yet realize. Among them is Jacquie Red Feather, newly sober and trying to make it back to the family she left behind. Dene Oxendene, pulling his life together after his uncle’s death and working at the powwow to honor his memory. Fourteen-year-old Orvil, coming to perform traditional dance for the very first time. Together, this chorus of voices tells of the plight of the urban Native American–grappling with a complex and painful history, with an inheritance of beauty and spirituality, with communion and sacrifice and heroism. Hailed as an instant classic, There There is at once poignant and unflinching, utterly contemporary and truly unforgettable.
When you first open There There, you’ll notice right away that it has a long cast of characters. Because of the format of the book, you’ll find this list to be very useful, at least for the first one-third or half of the novel. Each chapter focuses on a different character, and while the characters are all centered in the same area — Oakland, California — they don’t all know each other. It’s a large cast with numerous different sub-plots, disparate at first before slowly coming together.
There There may be the first book I’ve read that’s set up in this way. Perhaps the closest I can compare it to is Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, but that one followed two factions of a family, generation after generation. Even though each character faced wildly different circumstances, it was easier to follow. But in There There, the characters are contemporaneous yet largely disconnected… for a while, anyway.
This is both the greatest strength and greatest weakness of There There. On the one hand, I love that we get to spend time with so many unique characters, each going through different circumstances, but each illuminating what it’s like to be Native American in a big city. I connected with some of the characters more than others, which is to be expected in any book with multiple main characters. Blue, Jacquie Red Feather, and Orvil Red Feather stood out for me, but I was also interested in getting to know more about Tony Loneman.
Much as I liked some characters, others may have bogged the story down a bit. There were so many characters that it became hard to become fully invested in any of them. Just when you get into one person’s story, the chapter ends and it’s on to another character. There There would have been a tighter and more compelling book if Tommy Orange had narrowed the cast a bit — maybe 5-6 main characters rather than 12. As it is, it feels that none of the characters get the time and attention they deserve. Indeed, that’s a lot of people and plots to fit into a short, 290-page book!
All of that said, Tommy Orange is clearly a very talented writer. Between chapters, he moves from first person to third person; he even tries out second person for one chapter. At the beginning and near the middle, he includes chapters that feel more like nonfiction accounts, more informative than storytelling. It’s an unusual tactic, but it situates There There within something bigger.
This novel highlights a lot of important themes surrounding Native American experiences. It’s sad how many of these characters face major challenges and traumas: alcoholism, poverty, physical and sexual abuse, racism, and more all come into play. As such, it can become a heavy and emotionally draining book. It’s a raw and honest depiction of diverse Native American characters, and I imagine it would ring true for many Indigenous readers. (As a white woman, I myself cannot fairly speak to this topic.)
There There may start off feeling rather disjointed, but everything slowly weaves together until the novel’s explosive end. The final act is action-packed, and it goes by very fast. It’s scary, it’s emotional, and it may cause some tears to be shed. But then the novel abruptly ends, right as the action dies down and the aftermath is staring readers in the face. Tommy Orange doesn’t offer much closure; he doesn’t spell things out or guide us to a nicely wrapped up ending. Instead, the novel is cut short, and we’re left to pick up the pieces on our own. We get to imagine what would have happened next for the surviving characters. The resolution is up to us.
I can’t say that I quite enjoyed reading There There, but I do feel that I learned a lot from it. It was a valuable read, and I’m interested in exploring more from Tommy Orange in the future.
There There is a complex, meandering, and impactful novel. Tommy Orange introduces wide cast of characters, together painting a portrait of what it means to be Native American in Oakland today. While none of them gets enough time to shine on their own, the book’s strength is in its bigger picture. It’s an important but challenging read that boasts strong literary talent. I recommend this novel for anyone who’s up for a more thoughtful reading experience.
About the Author
Tommy Orange is a recent graduate from the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. He is a 2014 MacDowell Fellow, and a 2016 Writing by Writers Fellow. He is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. He was born and raised in Oakland, California, and currently lives in Angels Camp, California.