Though a work of fiction, Tommy Orange’s debut novel, There There, is steeped in history. And not just one kind. Entire chapters deal directly with the history of Native peoples in the Americas and their largely tragic encounters with European colonizers. It can be argued that the entire book, set in modern day, permeates with the centuries old theme of searching for identity in the face of cultural destruction. On a different level, it also explores the private histories that shape the everyday actions of all people. Orange expertly weaves together numerous personal stories into one greater tale, one where the individuals he follows, all with at least some Native lineage, make their way towards a sprawling powwow event in Oakland, California. And like much of the history that Orange touches upon throughout the novel, this book turns into a tragedy by the final pages. However, like in all tales, there are moments of beauty and sadness and humor that give the novel its soul. Individuals are the driving force of being human, and that is no different here. Eventually, these vignettes all come crashing together to create a complex story where multiple strands eventually connect into a heartbreaking tapestry.
Orange’s technique of highlighting a wide variety of characters proves to be both the strength and weakness of There There. The ones that hit truly hit. They make you feel both the huge theme of the Native American experience in the United States, particularly the one born in urban areas, while also exploring the pain that is both common and unique to all of us. A young man named Edwin Black was one of my favorites. In his first featured vignette, he is awkward, overweight, and self-isolated, totally unsure of where he fits in the world. Which brings up a question: what is it like to feel ostracized within a larger group that is already largely excluded from the society it exists in? Eventually, though, his arc transforms into one of cautious hopefulness. He becomes deeply involved in the planning of the powwow and contacts the man he believes to be his father through his mom’s Facebook account. Another character that helps bring true emotional depth to the book is that of a woman named Jacquie Red Feather. Her devastating story of family strife, abandonment, and alcoholism is perhaps the most powerful among several worthy contenders. A speech she gives at an AA meeting led by the long-disappeared father of her first child perfectly encapsulates the struggles felt throughout the novel, those of regret and tenuous optimism for the future.
Ultimately, this panorama of connected people proves to also be a weakness of the storyline. Some characters are just not given enough time to feel totally fleshed out. They provide interesting perspectives as certain puzzle pieces come together, but they never completely feel vital enough to justify their own chapters. Perhaps focusing on a few primary players and allowing the supporting cast to be just that may have been more effective in the long run. However, this is largely a minor quibble in an otherwise enjoyable and impressively handled juggling act.
I will finish this post with another look at history. A common mistake made by historians, professional and amateur, is to strip away the agency of those they are studying, particularly groups that have faced overwhelming oppression. This is especially common in the study of Native American history. People throughout time have made decisions based on the situations in front of them and have acted as individuals or groups attempting to preserve what they believe to be their best interests. And Orange, in There There, clearly knows this, which adds richness to the novel. He has no qualms about examining the atrocities Native tribes have faced since contact with Europeans and the anger and frustration this has caused; as a member of the Arapaho and Cheyenne Nations of Oklahoma, he has a vested interest in the stories he tells here. The ‘Prologue’ and ‘Interlude’ sections of the book do this masterfully and proved to be some of the most distinctive pages to read. These ideas of agency play into what Orange does with the myriad voices in the book. Every character makes decisions and must deal with the consequences in the pathways they travel down. Some must wrestle with things beyond their control, the collateral of someone else’s destructive actions or poor choices. But ultimately, by the explosive end of the story, everyone has attempted in some way to shape their own route through life, showing that no individual is ever truly passive when reacting to the world around them.
It will be exciting to see what Orange produces in the future, as he joins a rich lineage of Native literary voices that include novelist Louise Erdrich (a personal favorite) and poet Joy Harjo (whose work I only recently discovered and highly recommend). But beyond this, he also provides a glimpse into the universal struggle for identity with the experiences of his characters. Mr. Orange has a real opportunity to become a distinct voice concerning such matters in an ever-changing modern America.