Book Review: There There, Tommy Orange
Fiction: Book Review: There There, Tommy Orange
I have never read anything like There There before, and I am not the same person I was before reading it. There There is breathtaking. Shattering. Compelling. Devastating. Tommy Orange rips into American life with a ferocity built through centuries of oppression. I am literally shaking as I write this review; this book ripped me apart and it will take awhile for me to pull myself back together.
There There tells multiple, intertwined stories about Native Americans living in Oakland, CA as they prepare for the Big Oakland Powwow. These stories are raw. We meet a woman raising her three great-nephews on a mail-carrier’s salary. Her sister, the boys’ grandmother, who left the family before they were born. One of the kids, a teenager, who learned “Indian dancing” from YouTube videos. We meet gangsters and their hangers-on. We meet drunks and abusers, thieves, an aspiring videographer, a struggling programmer, and person after person whose life is a challenge. None of these characters has made it. Most of them won’t. They survive, they struggle, they fight, they persist. They scream in frustration at a world that seems to hate them. And in a shocking climax, we are left hoping that at least some of them will be able to continue screaming for another day.
I am white. Middle class. Decently educated. Male. Privileged. I will never know the pain of racism in the way that people of color experience regularly. Reading There There brings this separation home acutely. Poverty, crime, lack of opportunity, hopelessness, despair, substance abuse, suicide, abandonment: There There looks it all squarely in the face. There are no Ward and June Cleavers in this book. The suburbs might as well be on Mars. From my comfortable home in my semi-rural college town, the Oakland that Tommy Orange describes is as foreign as Mumbai or Kinshasa. Yet the power of Orange’s descriptions lets me close my eyes and see that Oakland. It’s a challenging view–but one I need to see.
Tommy Orange grew up in that Oakland. He is part of that Native American community. And he writes with passion and aggression, telling stories of his town and his people with rage and resentment and righteous anger. So you think you know that Gertrude Stein quote about Oakland, “There is no there there”? Orange claims that as the title of his book, and puts the quote in context: “she was talking about how the place where she’d grown up in Oakland had changed so much, that so much development had happened there, that the there of her childhood, the there there, was gone, there was no there there anymore.” Orange seizes that quote, then goes on to say “for Native people in this country, all over the Americas, it’s been developed over, buried ancestral land, glass and concrete and wire and steel, unreturnable covered memory. There is no there there.”
What do you do with writing like that? And that passion, that rage, continues in beautiful, haunting, mesmerizing prose page after page, chapter after chapter, turning you inside out and ripping out your heart. Orange quotes Teddy Roosevelt: “I don’t go so far to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.” That is not a quote I remember from my history classes. I looked it up: it was from a speech Roosevelt gave before becoming president. It’s not a quote I am now likely to forget.
Throughout the novel, Orange tells of alienation. Oakland has become a home for Native Peoples from all over America. But as this disparate, displaced diaspora gathered, much was lost. People without tribes, without even knowing what tribes they were from. Families coming together from different tribes, losing identification with anything other than a vague “Indian” understanding. As an outsider attending the occasional powwow, I could never appreciate how a seemingly artificial event could have any meaning. For a person who is struggling to find some power and community in their history, though, those gatherings are a liferaft. I was wrong and shallow before, failing to understand how vital the slenderest threads of belonging are to those who are buried in a culture built on their ancestors’ bodies. I look forward to seeing my next powwow with new eyes.
There There is a novel. It does not provide solutions. It tells a story. The only chance we have to know anyone else is to listen to their stories. There There is a story that must be heard.