By: Tommy Orange
Published: June 5, 2018
From the Cover
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 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.
For those individuals who are unfamiliar with the current portrait of Native Americans living in the United States, this book will hit hard. Even for someone like me–who has studied some of the ways in which Native Americans continue to suffer at the hands of the United States government both physically and emotionally–this book felt like a difficult pill to swallow. Orange weaves together the paths of more than 10 Native men and women to converge at one event: the Oakland Powwow.
Orange does a fantastic job building the plot up to this one event. As I read, I knew that something bad was gong to happen. It felt inevitable. In a way, I felt prepared for the ending as the buildup provided hints that this wouldn’t be just any powwow. It took me longer than I thought it would to get to the end of this book as I think I subconsciously knew what laid ahead was going to be difficult to read.
Orange makes no apologies with this book. It’s as if he is yelling out into a crowd, demanding attention in a way that makes people stop and listen. He speaks out on behalf of Native Americans around the United States, giving a voice to those whose voice has been stifled and ignored for generations. Orange details the intergenerational trauma of Native women who suffer from domestic abuse and violence at the hands of non-Native men, the sufferings from substance abuse, psychiatric illness, depression, and other mental health diseases. There There includes the despair of ailing health and broken bodies. It documents poverty, economic instability, and uncertainty about the future.
My only criticism is that I felt like there were too many viewpoints in the book. Going back and forth between more than 10 characters felt exhausting at times. The buildup is not a whirlwind–it’s a slow burn. I wanted to savor each person’s story as I knew Orange included their story specifically for a reason. However, I felt like the impact of some of the more “important” characters was lessened by the inclusion of others.
There There is an important book for any American to read. The ending shook me almost as much as the buildup. I am thrilled to know that this is only the beginning of Orange’s authorship. He is raw and real and unapologetic and unafraid. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.
The first powwow I went to was when I was about 16 years old. My boarding school hosted a regional powwow every year that was held in the gymnasium. Before coming to that school, I had no Native American friends or acquaintances. What I knew about Native Americans started and ended with my school curriculum. I remember distinctly sitting in the bleachers in the gymnasium that day watching the powwow events transpire. There was food, people were selling their craft out in the hallways, and the inside of the gym was full of singing, dancing, and performances. Looking back, I see now how incredible it was that I was able to witness this expression of culture and heritage–that this culture has been able to survive through the generations of adversity the American government and people has thrown in their way.
With the events that transpired yesterday at the Indigenous Peoples March in D.C., I am angry and embarrassed and heartbroken by the ways in which Natives are still abused and thought of as inferior by parts of the American population. However, if reading Orange’s book has taught me anything, it has taught me not to be surprised by these acts. There is still so much progress to be made and I honestly don’t even know where to start. Maybe we start by identifying and educating people who continue to use racial slurs in their everyday language, or those who still find it acceptable to dress as a Native American or “sexy” Native woman for Halloween. We can start bringing more attention to the missing and murdered Indigenous women who are ignored from government statistics and federal investigations (See more on this here). We can better advocate against government abuses towards Native lands and people (See more on this here). There is so much that needs to be done and the things I have mentioned here barely scrape the surface. But it’s past time, and we need to act.