Book Review: There There by Tommy Orange

There There
by
Tommy Orange

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Tommy Orange’s debut novel, There There, has been on my TBR list since it was first published in 2019. It was one of The New York Times 10 Best Books of the Year, winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award and is about the urban Native American experience of twelve characters as they plan to attend the Big Oakland Powwow in Oakland, California.

Each character has a separate story, all leading up to the day of the powwow. Central to the story and to these characters is the need to recognize and celebrate their native heritage as full or partial Indians. In the beginning, the reader only gets to know these characters as individuals, but Orange brings them together in unexpected ways. Honestly, even when I could feel the momentum building, I could not have predicted the genius of this story, which is tragic, sad, uplifting and a lot of other things. Orange says he thought of the ending first, then took several years thinking about how to connect the characters from the beginning.

How to explain this book, without saying too much? The first-hand experience of reading it is the way to go. But the characters need a brief description because they give you an idea of the additional struggles they face. Now imagine them all preparing for the powwow.

Tony Loneman, born with fetal alcohol syndrome, scored low on intelligence tests and suffered from ridicule in school. Now he’s a grown man, sensitive, strong and intuitive, but he’s mixed up with Octavio, a drug dealer. Dene Oxendine, half native, wins a grant to interview Native Americans in the Oakland area and these stories play into the events at the powwow. Edwin Black has a master’s degree in literature, but he won’t leave his room, he’s grossly overweight and is addicted to the internet. Bill Davis is Edwin’s mother’s boyfriend and an ex-con. He’s white and works clean-up at the Oakland Coliseum. Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield and her half-sister Jacquie Red Feather look back at their lives on Alcatraz during the nineteen-month protest from 1969-1971. Jacquie, now a recovering alcoholic mourns the suicide death of her daughter, Jamie. Jamie’s three young sons live with Opal. Orvil Red Feather, Jamie’s oldest son, secretly dresses in Opal’s native regalia and learns how to dance from YouTube videos. Calvin Johnson owes a drug dealer money and gets caught up in a scheme to rob the powwow with Octavio and others including, Daniel Gonzales, Octavio’s cousin. Blue, head of the powwow committee, was adopted and raised by a white family. She ran off to the Midwest but is back in Oakland, seeking connection. Thomas Frank, an alcoholic, is half-native. He lost his job at the Indian Center due to drinking. Now he’s headed to the powwow as one of the drummers.

All these people attend or are in some way connected to the powwow. Some make discoveries. Some meet tragedy. Some become heroes. And they all grapple with their identities.

As I’ve said about other excellent books, There There is the kind of book that you want to re-read, to understand the complexity of the characters and the issues they face and to appreciate the effort Tommy Orange put into writing it. I highly recommend this book!

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Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

Killers of the Flower Moon
by
David Grann

Genre: Nonfiction

Rating:

Killers of the Flower Moon is a true-crime account of a shameful period of American history in which members of the Osage tribe were murdered for the headrights to oil-rich land on their reservation in Oklahoma. David Grann tells this shocking story, including the investigation of the murders led by J. Edgar Hoover’s newly-formed Federal Bureau of Investigation.

After the U.S. Civil War, Native Americans from the Osage tribe were forced off their land in Kansas and relocated to Indian Territory. The land was rocky, there were no buffalo, but they were a smart nation, led by Chief James Bigheart, and two things seemed to be in their favor. One, they were one of only a few Native American nations to buy their own reservation and this gave them more rights. The second advantage was that, when the United States insisted the land be divided into parcels, to parallel the system of land ownership in the rest of the country, the Osage said okay, but with a stipulation. If any land was sold or leased to a non-native, whatever was underground belonged to the Osage.

The Osage became rich in the 1920s when oil was discovered on their land and, for a period of time, they enjoyed lavish lives. But the American government deemed the Osage unfit to manage their own money and appointed white guardians to control their royalties. Many of these guardians stole from their wards, and worse.

The coveted ownership of communal headrights, which could only be inherited, led to a shocking series of murders, headed by a prominent local American businessmen and carried out by a network of seemingly upstanding white citizens and career criminals. Dozens of Osage were murdered and many of them were from the same family. In Gray Horse, Oklahoma, Mollie Burkhart watched as her family was killed, one at a time, leaving her as the only one left. As she fell ill, she wondered, would she be next?

In desperation, the Osage hired FBI to stop the killings. The investigation was filled with bogus leads, false confessions, disappearing witnesses and unreliable informants. Grann provides details of the investigation and resulting trials, including updates on the key players from both sides and an interesting follow-up of the Osage today.

The events in Killers of the Flower Moon depict a deep-seated racism against the Osage, in which the white business leaders and citizens of the Gray Horse pretended to befriend and help the Osage, only to kill them for their money. Killers of the Flower Moon is a thorough historical account of the Osage murders, but this is one story you won’t see in school history books.

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Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

Days Without End
by
Sebastian Barry

Rating:

Thomas McNulty and John Cole are just boys in the 1840s when they meet under a hedge in a Missouri rainstorm. McNulty is an orphan from Ireland and Cole, from New England, has been on his own for a couple years. They know they will fare better if they stick together. A strong friendship protects McNulty and Cole during their early days as dancers in a miners’ saloon and later as soldiers in the Indian wars and the Civil War. Questions of morality, faith, and fate run through McNulty’s poetic narrative in a style like nothing else, mastered by Sebastian Barry. It’s an impressive feat that a writer can take a piece of ugly American history and throw a moving balance between love, friendship, honor and duty and the brutal violence that comes with following orders.

We were two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world.

Together they enlist in the army, travel endless days and nights and are charged with the dirty business of clearing the western land of Native Americans. Fierce battles between their troops and tribes from the Sioux make the reader question again the senseless killings and how soldiers, many with nowhere else to go, must reconcile their actions with a need to survive.

McNulty wonders if God is looking out for him. He’s never sure.

The world got a lot of people in it, and when it comes to slaughter and famine, whether we’re to live or die, it don’t care much either way. The world got so many it don’t need to.

Somehow McNulty and Cole survive the Indian wars, but not without deep scars and their time fighting the Rebels during the Civil War presents them with many of the same moral dilemmas, especially when they come face-to-face with their enemies.

There’s no soldier don’t have a queer little spot in his wretched heart for his enemy, that’s just a fact. Maybe only on account of him being alive in the same place and the same time and we are all just customers of the same three-card trickster.

And despite the ugly time period, the men form strong bonds with their commanders and fellow soldiers, for it is in battle that characters are formed. Bonds break, however, when unspeakable violence causes Barry’s characters to look out for themselves, the point at which the story changes from broad battles to personal struggles.

The only solace McNulty finds is in his deep love for Cole, and for Winona, their adopted Sioux orphan girl. The men in their camp and the people they meet later accept both Winona and their gay relationship, a surprisingly modern portrayal that represents one of the author’s important themes: acceptance. Through McNulty, Barry shows a complicated country of diverse backgrounds and cultures, trying only to survive, but willing to defend themselves to the death.

The end, despite violent and often hopeless events throughout the story, points to happier days, as McNulty reasons with optimism:

Life wants you to go down and suffer far as I can see. You gotta dance around all that.

McNulty’s character is a genius and eloquent storyteller, with poetic insights that explain love from all sides. I highly recommend this terrific book. While short (259 pages), you will not want to rush through it because Barry has carefully chosen every meaningful word.

I had not read anything by Sebastian Barry before this, but he is a well-known and highly respected Irish poet, playwright and novelist. He has won many awards, is a two-time Man Booker Prize finalist and has won the Costa Book of the Year prize for Days Without End (2016) as well as his 2005 novel, A Long Long Way.

On a side note, Barry relates that McNulty’s character was shaped by his teenage son, Toby, who recently came out as gay. Barry dedicated the book to Toby and says in an article from The Guardian (read here), “My son instructed me in the magic of gay life.”

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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
by
Sherman Alexie

Art by Ellen Forney

Rating:

Arnold “Junior” Spirit is trapped in a life of poverty on the Spokane Indian reservation and he has to do something about it.  Everyone around him is poor, but Junior has the additional problem of not fitting in on the reservation.  Skinny with a big head, thick black plastic glasses and prone to seizures, he’s been picked on and beat up his whole life.  Drawing cartoons helps him cope, but Junior knows what will happen if he stays.  It’s what has already happened to his mother and alcoholic father.  “They dreamed about being something other than poor,” he writes, “but they never got the chance to be anything because nobody paid attention to their dreams.”

Junior is good in school and knows that’s his ticket.  So when he asks his parents if he can switch to the all-white Reardon High School, one of the best schools in the state, they say okay.  They do that because they love him.

The switch costs Junior his best and only friend, Rowdy.  And it’s very different at Reardon where the kids have everything they want.  Will he be able to live in both worlds?  Junior’s sense of humor carries him through much, but he must reach deeper to survive a series of tragedies at home.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a semi-autobiographical account of Alexie’s life and is a terrific Young Adult coming-of age story.  Ellen Forney’s fantastic cartoon illustrations add an extra dimension to Junior’s character.  I chose it as part of my summer reading challenge to read a book that has been banned.

The Diary has been banned by many schools because of its depiction of sex and violence in the story.  (Click here to read more about Sherman Alexie and his response to this criticism.)  It has also won many awards, including the 2007 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and has been named to several annual lists including “Best Books of 2007” by the School Library Journal and the 2008 “Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults” by the Young Adult Library Services Association.  I highly recommend it for older young adults, high school and adult readers.

Visit Alexie’s website at fallsapart.com.

Click here to read about a terrific short story by Alexie, “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona”.

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The Round House by Louise Erdrich

the round house picThe Round House
by
Louise Erdrich

Rating:

I’m giving The Round House three stars because, although I enjoyed reading it, I wasn’t completely satisfied with the direction it took.  To be fair, I liked many things about this story of the Coutts family, Native Americans living on an Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota.  Thirteen-year-old Joe Coutts is in that middle space between boyhood and adulthood and feels driven to find and punish the man who has attacked, raped and nearly killed his mother, Geraldine.  After this plot is developed, however, the book takes several detours that do not always blend well with the storyline.  The author begins by describing how Geraldine, Joe and his father, Bazil, cope in the aftermath of this violent crime.  Amid their shock and outrage is their desperate wish to have things back to the way they were.  When Geraldine retreats to her bedroom, they struggle to coax her back into their lives. The question of jurisdiction is equally important and Bazil, an Ojibwe judge, turns to his law files to find an answer.  The exact location of the crime is critical, and because of overlapping land rights, Bazil understands that it’s unclear who will decide the case, the Ojibwe court system or the federal courts.  These are the things that drew me in.

Instead of this focus, however, the plot seems to meander and visit storylines and characters that go nowhere or are bumbling and comic and I think this is strangely out of place.  Bazil hauls files home from his office and he and Joe begin their research, but this effort seems to stall.  Joe and his buddies visit the crime scene to locate evidence and are easily sidetracked.  They make other efforts to gather evidence in an almost slapstick fashion.  At other points, Joe’s narration seems to take on the style of a “Whodunit” crime novel.

But here are the main things I like about The Round House:

  • Erdrich tells a moving story about family relationships.  I like how all the characters recognize the importance of family and are accepting of friends of family and also across a wide range of families.  I like how this bond spans all generations.
  • I enjoyed learning about the Ojibwe traditions and beliefs.
  • I think the “early” Joe character is well-defined.  I especially like how Erdrich describes him as he wishes he could have gone back in time to prevent his mother from leaving on the day of the attack because this is such a human way to think.  “I kept thinking how easily I could have gotten in the car with her that afternoon.  How I could have offered to do that errand.  I had entered that furrow of remorse – planted with the seeds of resentment – peculiar to young men.”
  • I think Linda Wishkob is Erdrich’s best character.  Her story and how it ties in with Joe’s family is the most interesting.  Her reactions are unpredictable and that adds a lot of suspense.  And although she is a strange and quirky sort, this character works.
  • Bugger Pourier’s character is a nice “sleeper” addition.  I like how he seems to be unimportant, but has important information.
  • Bazil’s dinnertime stories, designed to draw Geraldine out of her depression, are touching.  I like how hard Bazil tries to bring her back.
  • I think Erdrich does a great job showing Joe’s feelings of dread and sickness near the end of the story, as he realizes what he has done.
  • Joe’s friendship with Cappy.  I like how Erdrich describes these friends.  I especially like when Cappy trades sneakers with Joe, even though they wear different sizes.  I think this is a realistic example of friendship between guys.

I’ve mentioned some of the things that bothered me; however I have a few more:

  • Father Travis – I think this character is totally unrealistic and I don’t know how it adds to the story, except perhaps in the end, when he helps Joe understand how good can come from bad things.  “The only thing that God can do, and does all of the time, is to draw good from any evil situation.”  I’m also not sure I understand Travis’ recollection of the JFK assassination or its relevance.  In addition, the chase scene between Cappy and Father Travis is a head-scratcher.
  • Joe’s character takes on drastic changes and they seem unrealistic for a thirteen-year-old boy.  How is it these boys are driving cars?
  • Sonja’s character.  I guess she’s supposed to be someone Joe feels conflicted love for, but I don’t understand how the reader can be sympathetic to her situation and forgive her actions.  I think she has the potential to tie together the theme of violence against women.  I wish Erdrich had done more of that.
  • I think Joe’s grandfather, Mooshum, is a character with great potential and his sleep-talking fables are interesting to me.  I wish they had been tied better to the main plot.
  • Sonja’s birthday visit to Mooshum.  No spoilers here, but beyond strange.
  • Other references to Star Trek, Star Wars.  This is lost on the readers who aren’t into these shows and movies.
  • Mooshum’s birthday cake.  I like the description of the party and how it shows the warmth of the celebration, but I don’t understand the incident.  Is this supposed to be funny?
  • A couple Kindle typos.  Not a huge deal, but still…

I think a lot of this is a matter of opinion and reader taste, however, and I welcome other points of view.  I’ve read reviews that complain about the lack of quotation marks.  Didn’t bother me.  I’ve read other reviews that compare The Round House to To Kill a Mockingbird.  I don’t think this is a fair comparison, despite the similar initial premise.  I’d love to hear what you think.  I’d also like to read something else by Erdrich and I’m looking for recommendations.

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Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Orphan Train
by
Christina Baker Kline

Rating:

I liked this book that parallels the story of a young girl sent west on an orphan train from New York City in 1929 and a present-day Native American teenage girl who has struggled in the modern foster care system. I think Kline does an excellent job showing us how Niamh Power and these destitute orphaned children, both numb and frightened, must have felt as they traveled and met up with their matches, which were often far from perfect. Molly Ayer’s present-day story of a rebellious, Goth girl whose father has died and whose mother is addicted to drugs is somehow less powerful, but provides a necessary structure to the story. Molly meets ninety-one year-old Niamh, now named Vivian, when she is assigned to a community service punishment for stealing a book. The two form a friendship as Molly helps Vivian sort through her attic and together they relive Vivian’s story.

I liked Vivian’s story very much. I think Kline is great when she describes Vivian’s feelings and her desperate situation. It is very easy to imagine these children and their simple desire to live in a home where they are wanted, or at least fed and clothed and treated kindly. It’s somehow both shocking and understood that these orphans don’t always get that.

I enjoyed the book. It’s a look into a time that, because of the changes and struggles in those years, is full of stories.

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