There There by Tommy Orange (2018)

download-1I feel both energized and worn out after finishing There There.  The story takes intense concentration to keep the characters straight and to fully digest every story and its meaning. But prior to the start, we get a Prologue—Orange’s nonfiction opening—in which he boils down 500 years of Native history in short snippets, almost stream of consciousness style, where his point comes through in this excerpt: “We’ve been defined by everyone else and continue to be slandered despite easy-to-look-up-on-the-internet facts about the realities of our histories and current state as a people…Indians were removed, then reduced to a feathered image” (7).

The last page of the prologue introduces us to this Native story, not natives on the reservation or Natives in the wilderness: “Urban Indians were the generation born in the city…we know the sound of the freeway better than we do rivers” (11).  And this is the story of Natives living in Oakland, California.  Orange presents the varied characters in vignettes centered around each person (thankfully, there’s a short bio at the beginning to keep the 12 of them—and their relationship to each other—straight). Some vignettes are written in 1st person, some in 3rd, and one in 2nd.  Many of them go back and forth in time, and all of the characters’ stories and motives culminate at a Powwow held at the Oakland Coliseum.  But we know from the first vignette that things will not go well because Tony Loneman, a 21 year-old born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (which he calls the Drome), is hanging with Octavio, a drug dealer, and they’re already planning to rob the powwow with 3D printed guns.

Orange weaves us through the lives of these urban characters, all of whom are going to the powwow for the same reasons we go to family reunions or trace our family trees: identity.  Each one struggles with identity, both physically (many are half native and half white) and psychologically and each struggles with so many other issues as well—alcoholism, abuse, and abandonment topping the list. This book is an incredible achievement of genre, form, and voice.

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