A new writer with an old heart
In a prologue that will make you cry — bringing hackles of guilt to your eyes — Tommy Orange has brought past Native American history front and center and welded it to a story set in present day Oakland, California. “Urban Indians” he refers to his characters and their kin. This is not the Res or tales told by celebrated Native American authors such as Sherman Alexie and Scott Momaday, but one of urban angst complete with all the modern technology and vibe to which cities are prone.
In a word, this book is a wakeup call. A litmus test for our modern American conscience. An ethnic tour-de-force written by a young highly-educated Cheyenne man whom I predict will be a literary force to be reckoned with in the future.
Yet, even now, with this his first book, one is hearing echoes of the words Pulitzer and National Book Award in the halls of academe. No less than Louise Erdrich and Margaret Atwood sing his praises on the back cover of this book.
There There (taken from a quote by Gertrude Stein when describing her own hometown of Oakland, California as a place where “there is no there there”) is a book about place. About belonging and unbelonging. About inhabiting a land that is both yours and stolen from you. A revelation of controlled chaos. A comic celebration of profound sadness.
Orange tells his story through the voices of no less than 12 characters. To say that Orange is a literary ventriloquist would be an understatement as each of his characters come to life in their individual voice and they tell their stories in a shotgun format that starts as a scattered blast but unites to hit the target’s bullseye by the final page. In this sense, There There is something of a tapestry. The present woven to the past. The warp and the weft of the drama of lives that matter being marginalized in obscurity through no fault of their own.
As Tony Loneman proclaims in the early pages of the book, “Maxine told me I’m a medicine person. She said people like me are rare, and that when we come along, people better know we look different because we are different. To respect that. I never got no kind of respect from nobody, though, except Maxine. She tells me we’re Cheyenne people. That Indians go way back with the land. That all this was once ours. All this. They must not’ve had street smarts back then. Let them white men come over here and take it from them like that.”
And the story moves forward from here and into the lives of each of the 12 characters as they search to discover who they are and where they belong in this vast urban landscape of mostly broken dreams. In this sense There There is one long quote. Or series of quotes that stay with you, building to a crescendo that is a PowWow in the Oakland Colesium. “Tell me what a powwow is,” Octavio Gomez asks Tony Loneman. “We dress up Indian, with feathers and beads and shit. We dance. Sing and beat this big drum, buy and sell Indian shit like jewelry and clothes and art,” he answers.
Other characters include Jacquie Red Feather, who 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.
On this road to the powwow and for these three and all the other characters there will be glorious communion, spectacles of sacred tradition and pageantry. And there will be sacrifice, and heroism, and unspeakable loss. In his interlude midway through the novel, Orange quotes the French poet Charles Baudelaire: “What strange phenomena we find in a great city, all we need do is stroll about with our eyes open. Life swarms with innocent monsters.”
Also in the interlude, Orange describes why all his characters are headed to the powwow: “We all came to the Big Oakland Powwow for different reasons. The messy, dangling strands of our lives got pulled into a braid — tied to the back of everything we’d been doing all along to get us here. We’ve been coming from miles. And we’ve been coming for years, generations, lifetimes, layered in prayer and handwoven regalia, beaded and sewn together, feathered, braided, blessed, and cursed.”
And in probably the most profound paragraph in this book, in a section of the interlude Orange titles “Blood,” he talks about the Native American wound: “The wound that was made when white people came and took all they took has never healed. An unattended wound gets infected. Becomes a new kind of wound like the history of what actually happened became a new kind of history. All these stories that we haven’t been telling all this time, that we haven’t been listening to, are just part of what we need to heal. Not that we’re broken. And don’t make the mistake of calling us resilient. To not have been destroyed, to not have given up, to have survived, is no badge of honor. Would you call an attempted murder victim resilient?”
This book is not for the faint of heart, although the heart of the author is lighthearted and teasing at times. But this book is “essential,” as Marlon James calls it in his back cover endorsement. Essential to our own sense of responsibility to the often untold history of the United States of America and its karmic destiny and well-being going forward. Even amidst the tragedy and the tears in Orange’s saga, there is hope. In one sense one feels in reading this book as if hope is all we have. But there is enough hope in Orange’s words and the way he strings his words together for us all. And that together we can build a better dream.