There There by Tommy Orange wasn’t the book I’d hoped it would be. Where Heart Berries was a deep dive in one woman’s psyche, There There is a shallow dip into the lives of many, many characters. That they both center on the varied experiences of Native Americans in mostly urban settings is the biggest similarity. And yet, it has a unique rhythm all its own.
Orange takes his characters up to the point of a powwow in Oakland, California. He tells the back story of a few, going back decades. Other stories are based more in the weeks around the powwow. A powwow is an organized event, bringing together Native Americans from various tribal backgrounds. One major feature is usually a dance competition, often with significant prize money attached.
In a way, Orange creates a powwow in his book. His characters have varied backgrounds, both in their Native heritage and in the life they lead outside it. They have a variety of threads tying them together. And everyone is doing a dance that brings them to the powwow in Oakland, each playing their own part. Most importantly, There There is a celebration and a poignant exposition of the urban aspects of Native American life in the 21st century.
In addition to its story arc, Tommy Orange also adds two essay sections to his novel, and those were my favorite part. He talks the hard truths about the treatment of Native Americans, as well as how that translates to their urban experience. It was intense, eye-opening, and jaw dropping.
From the book
“Getting us to cities was supposed to be the final, necessary step in our assimilation, absorption, erasure, the completion of a five-hundred-year-old genocidal campaign. But the city made us new, and we made it ours. We didn’t get lost amid the sprawl of tall buildings, the stream of anonymous masses, the ceaseless din of traffic. We found one another, started up Indian Centers, brought out our families and powwows, our dances, our songs, our beadwork.”
Like I said, this wasn’t quite the book I was hoping for. And yet, as the days have passed, I find myself thinking about Jackie Redfeather and Dean Oxendene. Dean is working on a video project to encourage Native Americans to tell their stories. Any story, without edits or interference. In a way, I think Dean is probably Orange’s voice. As a reader, I think they have parallels but I can’t say for sure.
And Jackie just broke me. She never had a chance to truly get past the wrongs that happened in her childhood and early teen years. Like many of the characters, her story was tough on the heart. But I respected her, and wanted so much more for her.
I listened to this as an audiobook, but I’ve also gone back and read the printed words of certain parts. The essay sections pulled me especially hard, being a regular nonfiction reader.
I think Tommy Orange is a voice we all need to listen to, and really hear. Understanding the experience of his community is part of opening our hearts to our indigenous people.