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There is Where?: A review of THERE THERE
~ Dr. Dawn Karima
THERE THERE by Tommy Orange. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018. 294 pages, hardcover, $25.95. ISBN# : 978-0-525-52037-5
“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. We have the sad, defeated Indian silhouette, and the heads rolling down temple stairs, we have it in our heads, Kevin Costner saving us, John Wayne’s six-shooter slaying us, an Italian guy named Iron Eyes Cody playing our parts in movies. We have the litter-mourning, tear-ridden Indian in the commercial (also Iron Eyes Cody), and the sink-tossing, crazy Indian who was the narrator in the novel, the voice of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. We have all the logos and mascots. The copy of a copy of the image of an Indian in a textbook. All the way from the top of Canada, the top of Alaska, down to the bottom of South America, Indians were removed, then reduced to a feathered image. Our heads are on flags, jerseys, and coins. Our heads were on the penny first, of course, the Indian cent, and then on the buffalo nickel, both before we could even vote as a people—which, like the truth of what happened in history all over the world, and like all that spilled blood from slaughter, are now out of circulation.”
― Tommy Orange, THERE THERE
Evocative, anguished prose describes the turbulent emotional culture of Oakland's "Urban Indian" in Tommy Orange's debut novel. Inspired by Gertrude Stein's quotation defining Oakland as "There is no there there," the title reflects Orange's ideas that Urban Natives “made art and we made babies and we made way for our people to go back and forth between reservation and city. We did not move to cities to die. The sidewalks and streets, the concrete, absorbed our heaviness. The glass, metal, rubber, and wires, the speed, the hurtling masses—the city took us in.” THERE THERE explores the liminal spaces between people, places, and the innate desire to belong.
Weaving words into webs of emotion and action, Orange shifts between troubled narrators. Each character shares their experiences surrounding an upcoming powwow. From Dene Oxendine, a collector of stories, who eagerly builds the recording booth that will literally redeem his life to Fetal Alcohol Syndrome survivor, Tony Loneman, who will draw upon an unknown heroism, THERE THERE delineates city life through the eyes of Native residents of Oakland. Orange crafts each character with skill and insight and allows them to provide their perspective of events.
Orange intertwines powwow culture, tribal bureaucracy, social work, activism and assimilation in seamless storytelling. The specter of Alcatraz looms large in the lives of Jacquie Red Feather, who finds herself face to face with the man who once abandoned her...and with her daughter Blue, who finds herself facing the mother who gave her up. Alcohol, addiction, suicide, adoption, and social issues blend into these personal family stories, which each advance the narrative, while addressing contemporary Native life.
Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield survives the city by depriving her grandsons of their tribal heritage. Raising her sister's grandchildren, Opal sees tribal teachings as "a privilege. A privilege we don't have." As a result, her grandson, Orvil Red Feather, relies on YouTube videos and an ill-fitting secret regalia to prepare for the powwow that will finally bring him into the circle. Orange summarizes the dichotomy between modernity and tradition that appears throughout this novel by saying, “Some of us got this feeling stuck inside, all the time, like we’ve done something wrong. Like we ourselves are something wrong.”
Edwin Black attempts to remedy his feeling of something wrong by indulging in overeating and secluding himself in an online world. His effort to enter the wider world begins with an internship preparing for the powwow. As he tentatively takes an interest in the Native community, he connects with co-worker and domestic violence survivor, Blue, and finds meaning and purpose at last.
Amidst the efforts of Orange's unique and well-illustrated characters to survive their surroundings and infuse their days with interest, a sinister plot swirls. Orange provides balanced and clear stories of each character, while avoiding caricatures and stereotypes. Each narration adds to the impact of the novel and increases the reader's understanding of what is going on at each phase.
THERE THERE takes risks. Enrolled Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal member Tommy Orange writes about Oakland, where he was born and raised, without sentimentality or shrinking from shocking issues. His writing establishes a sense of place, as Oakland appears as a character as well as a location. Orange avoids the perilous possibilities of sensationalism, as he draws the book to a natural, albeit tragic conclusion.
“She told me the world was made of stories, nothing else, just stories, and stories about stories,” Orange writes. “When you hear stories from people like you, you feel less alone," the recent MFA recipient from IAIA states, "When you feel less alone, and like you have a community of people behind you, alongside you, I believe you can live a better life.” THERE THERE proves the power of storytelling among tribal cultures, among families, and among us all.