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. Continue reading