Book Review: There There, by Tommy Orange, a Pulitzer Prize Finalist,* published June 5, 2018, 304 pages, Lexile 810, recommended for advanced grades 5-up or for high school readers, given mature content. Please note: this book is not yet in the Pageturner library and requires student requests per class for purchases to be made.

Vox has reviewed There There as “a searing examination of American Indianness in the 21st century,” and it is exactly that, but it’s also so much more.  --Excerpted from   The title derives from a line by Gertrude Stein, who famously said of Oakland, CA, “There’s no there there.”  Stein was pining for a way of life that had existed in the late 1800s, when she grew up in Oakland on a farming ranch of 10 acres, in a town of only 10,000 people.  When she returned 40 years later, her childhood home had been replaced by a plethora of new houses, the land dissected into tiny plots--Oakland had expanded to some 300,000 people. The same, by analogy, has happened to America’s indigenous peoples:

“Being Indian has never been about returning to the land.  The land is everywhere or nowhere.”  Here, Orange truthfully insists that place is no longer relevant in claiming indigenous identity, and that the white notion of all Indians living on reservations is plainly outmoded and wrong.  In fact, fully 78% of native Americans now live in cities. As of 2018 when There There was published, 140,000 lived in the Bay Area alone, among them Tommy Orange. See:

There are two telling quotes in this novel, which begins with Bertolt Brecht: “In the dark times will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.” Elsewhere, Orange quotes James Baldwin, who wrote: “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.”  These ideas are extrapolated throughout: Orange shows how dysfunction and anger are both held within an individual and dished out to others as recurring pain.

Tommy Orange’s writing style has been described as non-fictional (ibid). He addresses the white nation simply as “you,” while writing of Native peoples as “we.”  He includes sections where he writes his own perspective as a historian, exclusive of the story, and here he is uncompromising and deservedly bitter. Even when writing sympathetically about his characters, his über-candid style persists.  There is, however, a good deal of poetry in his images as he relates the story. And although all of his characters are flawed, he is deeply sympathetic; there are no real villains here.  The hero of the story, named Tony, has been afflicted with an impairment not of his own making--and shamed for it--all his life.  People won’t look at him because he is small, with a small head and odd facial features.  Yet he makes fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), which he calls “the ‘Drome,” the impetus for his heroism. Tony both opens the story and ends it, by limiting the catastrophe the author inexorably pulls us toward, as though by drums of war. Raised to think he’s a healer, Tony thinks: 

“Maybe I am a ghost…Maybe I’m the opposite of a medicine person. Maybe I’m’a do something one day, and everybody’s gonna know about me. Maybe that’s when I’ll come to life. Maybe that’s when they’ll finally look at me, because they’ll have to.”  Here’s compelling foreshadowing, and we’re only at page 19.

Many of the novel’s 12 characters are interrelated with such complexity, the Vox review suggests the reader might want to chart them!  For example: Harvey, of Cheyenne ancestry, had raped Jacquie Redfeather in 1970, when she and her younger sister Opal had joined the yearlong protest at Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. Jacquie gave up the baby girl produced from that rape, who was adopted by a white family--that baby will turn out to be Blue, who’s organized the upcoming Oakland Powwow with Edwin. Harvey will also recognize Edwin as his son by another woman (Karen), when he first sees him there; Edwin had first contacted Harvey by posing, online, as his mom. Harvey gives Jacquie a ride, although she continues to despise him for the past he inflicted on her. Opal is raising three boys, Jacquie’s grandsons by her younger daughter Jamie, who committed suicide.  One of those boys is Orvil.  Raised without any knowledge of his history although he’s fully indigenous, Orvil dreams of becoming a dancer in full Indian regalia--he feels the dance through music, watching in the mirror as his feet move. Karen is dating Bill, a Lakota man who’s served time in prison for murder; Bill is constantly needling Edwin, who lives with his mom, is mostly online, who feels he can’t leave his room when Bill is there. Bill is a janitor at the Oakland venue.  Thomas had been a janitor there but was fired for drunkenness; he is a Viet Nam vet and still racked by demons he met there. His indigenous band will play at the powwow. Bill and Thomas represent the older generation; war and alcoholism are their demons, as drugs and hyper-capitalism are the younger generation's. Calvin lives with his sister, owes his brother Charles money--and also Octavio, a drug dealer. Octavio was raised to be a healer by his grandmother; instead, he plans to rob the Oakland Powwow. Daniel, Octavio’s cousin, lives with his parents and still mourns his brother’s suicide. Like Edwin, he spends a lot of time on his computer; he prints out the 3-d guns that will be used in the robbery, believing guns grant power. If there’s one character with whom the author relates, it’s Dene Oxendene.  He’s a budding filmmaker who’s received a grant, and brought a drone, to cover stories about indigenous people in the Bay area, including at the powwow.  He survives the shooting that kills or injures multiple characters because his display walls had shielded him--the author signals, here, the critical importance that native stories, real stories, continue to be told. Dene is the narrator of the novel’s story, an alter ego for the author himself. 

Identity is the story’s central theme.  Edwin expresses what indigenous peoples face in trying to find themselves, “If it isn’t pulling from tradition, how is it indigenous? And if it is stuck in tradition, in the past, how can it be relevant to other indigenous peoples living now, how can it be modern?” Orange illustrates the many different ways native peoples find to identify themselves, all of which have value.  Some characters make medicine boxes for themselves.  Opal has a superstition that involves counting numbers (a tradition also found in ancient cultures as, for example, the Hebrew Kabbala, or the Vedic tradition of
Anka Shastra.
)  One may chuckle at that and think Opal naive, but in the end it proves to work for her.  All have an affinity for great communal gatherings, like this Powwow, wherein they can see themselves in others. Orvil yearns for more of his own history, but Opal tells him that’s “…a privilege we don’t have.”  

On a BART train en route to the powwow, a white woman asks Tony, dressed in full regalia, “So you’re…Native American?”  When he invites her to the powwow, however, she backs out of the conversation altogether. “People don’t want more than a little story they can bring back home with them…to talk about how they saw a real Native American boy on a train, that they still exist.”  For Tony, Thomas, and for Orvil, too, the music and dance are a form of prayer, sacrosanct.  For the white woman, it’s only about the feathers.  Always, the feathers.  When Orvil is dressing in the locker room at the coliseum with the other dancers, he realizes they all put on their identity, “become Native,” as they don their feathered costumes.

How do you find yourself when society considers you only as an anomaly, a mere romantic notion, perhaps, or a backwards glance through a sordid history they’d rather not see? Orange reveals that many indigenous people were assigned surnames like his own, colors: Green, Black, White, Red--Orange. This was done to preserve the white male patriarchy, “the dad names,” as he calls them. In his uniquely individual characters, however, he demonstrates that there are almost as many ways to be indigenous as there are people.  He is contemptuous of the federal government’s continuing insistence on categorizing indigenous peoples according to the degrees of their DNA, “full-blood, half-breed, quadroon, eights, sixteenths, thirty-seconds. Undoable math. Insignificant remainders.”  When Dene tries to elicit a story from Calvin that he can use for his project, Calvin frankly states, “I just don’t know about this blood shit.”  Blue says, “I brought home dated racial insults from school like it was the 1950s. All Mexican slurs, since people where I grew up don’t know Natives still exist.” (My own daughters, who are Black/white/and slightly indigenous at 3%, have been accosted in public with profanities as though they, too, were Mexican. In the Heinz 57 varieties of our combined heritage, we might wish for some Mexican, but it’s just not there.)

When the shooting starts, Opal wonders, “Did someone really come to get us here? Now? She doesn’t know what she means.” What she feels, though, is that white people are somehow always the perpetrators of violence against them.  Instinctively, she reaches for that same explanation now.

Orvil, the novel’s youngest, most positive character, hope for their future, is shot as he finishes his first dance.   “He doesn’t want to know what he knows but he knows…He wants to hear the drum one more time. He wants to stand up, to fly away in all his bloodied feathers…He wants to believe he knows how to dance a prayer and pray for a new world…He needs to remember that he needs to keep breathing.”  At the hospital, Orvil is rushed in before Edwin.  His life hangs in the balance.  It’s only when Opal sees a count of 8 that we know Orvil will survive. It’s a huge relief, salted with a bit of humor, that it happens this way.  Orvil will raise his song and prayers again, whether or not he is able to dance.  Hope, I’ve read somewhere, is “the thing with feathers” (Emily Dickinson, 1891). Elsewhere in the book Orange despises the long history of Natives dying “in bloodied feathers,” but here, Orvil’s feathers depict him as very nearly angelic.

When Tony is shot, he fights to survive long enough to save others. “Some part of him is trying to leave, into the dark cloud he’s only ever emerged from later [referencing the anger, the confusion, the darkened state typically caused by FAS] “But Tony means to stay, and he does. His vision brightens…He feels harder than anything that might come at him, speed, heat, metal, distance, even time.”  Shot multiple times, Tony is nevertheless able to shoot Charles in the head even as he’s protecting others with his body. As he dies, birds are singing their prayer:

“He watches himself go up, out of himself, then he watches himself from above, looks at his body and remembers that it was never actually really him. He was never Tony just as he was never the Drome. Both were masks…There is a bird for every hole in him. Singing. Keeping him up.” 

I’ve read books a thousand pages long that could be summarized in a single paragraph.  In this one of barely over 300 pages, there is so much to unpack that no review can really do it justice.  You’ll just have to read it for yourself and hopefully pass it on to a deserving student in your orbit.  Trust me, they’ll understand; in many ways, their generation groks more than we do.

*Winner of the John Leonard Prize 2019, the PEN/Hemingway Award 2019, and the American Book Award, 2019