BookBrowse Reviews There There by Tommy Orange

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There There

by Tommy Orange

There There by Tommy Orange X
There There by Tommy Orange
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2018, 304 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2019, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Meara Conner
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A ground-breaking perspective of urban America from a talented new author.

Tommy Orange's debut novel, There There, takes its title from a Gertrude Stein quote about Oakland, California: "There is no there there." This is an apt description, not only of Oakland in the 21st century, but also for the group of indigenous people who inhabit it. The city has come to represent a loss of homeland and identity that has defined Native Americans in America's history. As the novel's prologue puts it, "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."

There There follows 12 Native American characters, each of whom live, or have spent time living, in Oakland, and who all converge in that city for a big powwow at the Oakland Coliseum. However, this polyphonic novel is far more complex and nuanced than that simple description indicates. Each character interacts with his or her Native culture in a distinct way. For some, there is a desire to leave it behind, letting it become lost for good. Others, finding themselves unmoored in a city that makes it easy for people to lose themselves, struggle to self-define through a connection to their culture. Parents try to steer their children away from Native culture in an attempt to save them from trying to be a part of something that, in their view, no longer exists. Orange's multi-faceted exploration of what it means to be Native American in an urban setting does not have any easy answers; rather, it is something that each person must find for him or herself.

Orange brings into sharp focus the legacy of cultural inheritance and how that plays into the generational gap between Native Americans. The older characters tend to have moved past caring about connecting with their culture because of the ways it has hurt them in the past. Opal Victoria Bear Shield, one of the novel's first narrators, recalls a childhood spent on Alcatraz, in which her mother and several other Native American families lived in the abandoned prison as part of the 1969-1971 occupation. As a child, she is unable to understand her mother's decision to move her and her sister to a place with dwindling food, spare accommodations, and total isolation, only comprehending later that it was a result of her mother's desire to fight for her culture. Similarly, her mother's death from cancer later partly results from a refusal to be treated by any means other than traditional Native remedies. As a result, in her adult life, Opal tries her hardest to keep the great-nephews in her care separate from their Native roots, hiding her traditional headdress, and forbidding them to attend the powwow. Orange writes, "It's to prepare them for a world made for Native people not to live in, but to die in, shrink, disappear. She needs to push them harder because it will take more for them to succeed than someone who is not Native." However, the younger characters (for the most part) seem to strive for some connection to their lost culture. Edwin Black, a 30-year-old unemployed man living at home with his mother, finds a sense of purpose after finding out that his father was part of the Cheyenne tribe. Orange indicates that trying to remove the next generation from its culture only serves to strengthen the desire for that connection.

There There also tackles a variety of issues facing Native Americans today. One character, Tony Loneman, is born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, resulting in physical deformities and a very low I.Q.; Orange draws a heavy association between Tony's unhappiness as a result of these issues and his desire to cause further hurt in the world, perpetuating a seemingly never-ending cycle. Jacquie Red Feather, Opal's sister, suffers from alcoholism, resulting in her refusal to see her grandchildren and a lifelong battle with staying sober. Her daughter committed suicide, a result of extreme depression and drug abuse. However, Orange does not include this myriad of afflictions to gain sympathy from the reader, but rather to question if Native Americans are more susceptible to these afflictions because of their loss of place and identity. Does the lack of something tangible to hold on to make it easier for addiction and depression to sweep up those left adrift?

Orange's debut novel is a masterful new addition to the canon of Native American literature. There There is a stunning portrait of the interactions between culture and city, family and freedom.

Reviewed by Meara Conner

This review was originally published in June 2018, and has been updated for the May 2019 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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