Wednesday, September 12, 2018

There There - Tommy Orange

Summary: Fierce, angry, funny, heartbreaking—Tommy Orange’s first novel is a wondrous and shattering portrait of an America few of us have ever seen, and it introduces a brilliant new author at the start of a major career. 

There There is a relentlessly paced multigenerational story about violence and recovery, memory and identity, and the beauty and despair woven into the history of a nation and its people. It tells the story of twelve characters, each of whom have private reasons for traveling to the Big Oakland Powwow. Jacquie Red Feather is newly sober and trying to make it back to the family she left behind in shame. Dene Oxendene is pulling his life back together after his uncle’s death and has come to work at the powwow to honor his uncle’s memory. Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield has come to watch her nephew Orvil, who has taught himself traditional Indian dance through YouTube videos and has come to the powwow to dance in public for the very first time. There will be glorious communion, and a spectacle of sacred tradition and pageantry. And there will be sacrifice, and heroism, and unspeakable loss.

Here is a voice we have never heard—a voice full of poetry and rage, exploding onto the page with stunning urgency and force. Tommy Orange writes of the plight of the urban Native American, the Native American in the city, in a stunning novel that grapples with a complex and painful history, with an inheritance of beauty and profound spirituality, and with a plague of addiction, abuse, and suicide. An unforgettable debut, destined to become required reading in schools and universities across the country. (Summary and pic from

My Review: Have you ever walked into a room and there is a conversation going on and it’s very animated. The person is, like, seriously passionate about what’s going on. They’re angry, they’re fed up, they’ve had enough. It’s not like what their saying isn’t true—it definitely is—but you think that maybe if you had heard it from the beginning or had been a part of the conversation early it would have been easier to connect and understand? Walking into a conversation like that is exactly how it felt to open up There There. Tommy Orange is angry. Super angry. The Native American people and indigenous people of the world have obviously been through a lot—are still going through a lot—and he is no longer letting this go on without saying something about it. I really appreciated that, actually. I like honest people. The way this book begins, though, is like going for a drink of water at a drinking fountain and instead you get a fire hose.

I’ve thought a lot about the beginning of this book. I read it several months ago, and I was aware that it would be strong and decisive. It absolutely made an impression on me and although the beginning was a fire hose, I’m not sure that it could have been done any differently and had the same impact. There are a few other sections of the book that are like this as well. They tell the story of the Native American peoples and the injustices they have faced over the years, and while it is not directly relevant to the story going on in the book, it is absolutely relevant to the story in the book. It’s a really interesting dichotomy, actually, like reading history and also reading the outcome of that history. This history was not unfamiliar to me. I have several Native American friends (who come from all different tribes)and we’ve  talked about these issues and how they have affected their lives on a personal level. So I’m not naïve. Still. It was intense.

To say I enjoyed the book seems like that doesn’t really give it the gravitas that it deserves. It was fierce, and the stories are really difficult. The chapters are broken up into different characters, many of whom are either related or weave in and out of each other’s lives. They are all present for one event that has led to the author telling about each one individually. Because there were so many characters, it was difficult at times to keep track of who was who. The names were distinctive so that helped, but when you have 12 or so characters, and you only meet them for a chapter or two, sometimes it’s hard to keep track of every little detail when the next chapter just launches into something completely different. And that was my complaint about this book, really. These were some really interesting characters, and I think their lives told a lot about the modern struggles of an ancient people, and what history has done to them and what they have done with it. Because of that, though, I think the book was too short. It certainly ends abruptly, almost unsatisfying so, and I would have liked more in-depth story for each of them, as well as the story overall. I felt like the book was almost an outline it was so short. Orange is a talented writer with an interesting voice, and I think that this story would have been better served had it been fleshed out more. That being said, I think it was a really interesting read and one that college students should read for sure—it would certainly be eye-opening. Many of these things I didn’t learn until much later. Also, I think it’s a good read for people to understand what it’s like to be Native American in this country, with its history and its current issues and triumphs.

My Rating: 3.5 stars.

For the sensitive reader: This book has language, violence, and some sex.

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