There There  – ★★★★
There There is a debut book by Tommy Orange, a Cheyenne and Arapaho author who has a goal to draw attention to the lives of Native Americans living in an urban setting in the present day US. We follow twelve different characters who all live in Oakland, California and struggle in some form in their lives. From marginalised and criminally-minded Tony Loneman to internet-obsessed and lonely Edwin Black; and from history-inspired Dene Oxendene to poverty-stricken and troubled sisters – Opal Bear Shield and Jacquie Red Feather, Tommy Orange presents a heart-wrenching overview of the struggles of the people who want to re-connect with their families and their Native American heritage. The characters’ lives are intertwined and there is a feeling like they are all moving towards an explosive finale in the story. The result is a powerful tribute to Native Americans living in big US cities today, trying to make their heritage feel relevant and important, even if Orange’s story as a narrative falls short of its mark because of its overly-ambitious multiple perspectives’ focus, as well as its dissatisfying ending.
The book is told through the perspectives of different people, and there are two things they have in common: their Native American heritage and their struggles, largely to fit in and to succeed in the present day American society. Most of these people have had an upbringing full of trauma and poverty-induced crime. Broken families, bad influence and addiction as a coping mechanism are also predominant themes. For example, Jacquie grows up battling an alcohol addiction and Edwin struggles with both his obsession with Internet and his weight. The despair in the narrative is very felt when we read such passages as: “we don’t have time…time has us. It holds us in its mouth like an owl holds a field mouse” [Tommy Orange, 2018: 36], and “it’s not the alcohol. There’s not some special relationship between Indians and alcohol. It’s just what’s cheap, available, legal. It’s what we have to go to when it seems like we have nothing else left” [Tommy Orange, 2018: 112].
The admirable aspect here is that Tommy Orange tries to present the situation from each of his characters’ different point of view and we really get to know what is it like for them to be Native Americans living in urban America. The downside of this multiple perspective is that we do not really get attached to any of the characters and, thus, cannot sympathise as much with individual situations. However, Tommy Orange does reach his goal this way – we are shown the life and perspective of a little community and get to understand how this little community got impacted by the passage of time, modern ways, stereotypes and indifference as a whole, as a group. As each character has its own different story to tell, we also get a broad overview of the living conditions and life situations of the present-day Native Americans living in a large city.
As we follow the daily lives of the characters, some of whom have relatives in common, we also learn that one big event starts to pull them closer together too – The Big Oakland Powwow, to which the characters are going (powwow is “a social gathering held by many different Native American communities”). For example, Orvil Red Feather aims to dance during the event and win the big money prize, while Edwin hopes to meet his father there for the first time. Will this event go as planned or the lives of our characters will fatefully cross to result in an explosive show-down of bottled anger and “reunion” desperation coming to the fore? The concern is real since some of the characters still grieve for the days long gone and their lost opportunities in life. They feel bitter about the type of their recognition as Native Americans and their land lost and now unrecoverable: “the wound that was made when white people came and took all that they took has never healed” [Tommy Orange, 2018: 13]; “for Native people in this country, all over the Americas, [their ancestral land] been developed over, buried ancestral land, glass and concrete and wire and steel, unreturnable covered memory. There is no there there” [Tommy Orange, 2018: 39]. The hope is injected into the narrative by the character of Dene Oxendene who wants to document the present day lives of his fellow Native Americans and in this way pay tribute to his uncle. He aims to do so at The Big Oakland Powwow, where he will have a chance to interview various people about their experiences – since “We haven’t seen the Urban Indian story [yet]. What we’ve seen is full of the kinds of stereotypes that are the reason no one is interested in the Native story in general” [Tommy Orange, 2018: 40].
I cannot say I am a fan of either the language or the style of writing used by Tommy Orange in his book, but it undoubtedly brings much needed “rawness” and “authenticity” to the story he wants to tell. There is some very strong language used by the characters, but the whole impression is still as through there are real people talking and talking openly about themselves and their problems. Unfortunately, because the novel builds much suspense and tension, there is much anticipation about the events taking place at The Big Oakland Powwow in the story, and the reader is likely to be disappointed that much build-up did not really result in something unpredictable. There There even feels unfinished.
There There may not work brilliantly as a fiction story, but it is imbued with some special power nevertheless, capable of leaving an impression on the reader. The novel brings culturally and economically-marginalised people living in the cities today into the spotlight, and their perspective on their present situation is told through their own unique voice. The Native American people (people who identify as such) we follow have their own goals and dreams in life, and one of them is to feel connected with their ancestors, their own people and to never forget the sacrifices once made by their people. Recognising these people’s present-day troubles, preserving their culture and not losing that important link with history when time rushes forward and changes occur are what this story is all about.