Tommy Orange’s “There There” is a Bay Area bestseller for a reason. The exquisitely wrought novel tells the story of 12 characters who plan to attend a “Big Oakland Powwow.”
They are not traveling from rural reservations. They are “urban Indians” who call Oakland home. They live in a cityscape where BART stations, the Oakland Coliseum and the Grand Lake Theatre mark the terrain.
The book’s title is borrowed from Gertrude Stein. When her Oakland home was torn down and her old neighborhood redeveloped, she observed that the “there” of her childhood had ceased to exist. As one of the novel’s characters, Dene Oxendene, states, “But for native people in this country, all over the Americas, it’s been developed over, buried ancestral land, glass and concrete and wire and steel, unreturnable covered memory. There is no there there.”
Orange begins the uniquely structured book with a prologue recounting the cruel history of efforts to eradicate Native American peoples. He describes the betrayal and brutality they endured as they negotiated with successive waves of Europeans, including the Pilgrims. He reminds us how violent a history it has been.
Each subsequent chapter is the story of a single character. We learn their histories and hopes, their strengths and sorrows as they prepare for the powwow. They each have their own reasons for attending — some practical, some profound. Orange writes, “We made powwows because we needed a place to be together.”
Many of the characters work at the Indian Center. They struggle with alcohol, drugs, poverty, mental illness, violence and shame.
Tony Loneman was born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. We meet Orvil, Loother and Lony Red Feather, whose mother committed suicide.
Calvin Johnson, who is bipolar, has a brother who’s a drug dealer.
Each character’s story is emotional, raw and intimate. We understand why their lives are so difficult. Orange points to James Baldwin’s statement: “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.”
Yet the characters are not as bitter as one might expect, though most live on the edge. They navigate their lives while carrying the psychic pain of their ancestors’ suffering. They persevere and find unique ways of expressing their native heritage.
The characters vary by tribe, age, gender and attitude. About their collective past, they have different interpretations.
They voice fervent beliefs and existential observations. Tony Loneman says of his ancestors, “They must not’ve had street smarts back then. Let them white men come over here and take it from them like that.”
Another character, Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, says, “Don’t ever let anyone tell you what being Indian means. Too many of us died to get just a little bit of us here, right now, right in this kitchen.”
Orange weaves together the individual stories as the plot plays out in surprising ways at the powwow at the Coliseum.
The Native Americans have come to dance, celebrate, sell crafts and just be together. But a few have nefarious plans.
Violence lurks, the dancing ends, and the powwow crescendos to a chilling climax.
“There There” is a literary burst of pain and rage leavened by understanding and empathy. In his re-imagining and update of the story of America’s native people, Orange, a talented and urgent new voice on the scene, displays a sympathetic ear for the psychological burden that the past brings to the present.
Written by: Tommy Orange
Published by: Knopf
Katherine Read blogs at http://readsreading.blogspot.com