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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