There’s a lot to recommend about Tommy Orange’s There There, and I can see why it was nominated for so many awards. It’s the story of twelve different characters getting ready for a powwow in Oakland, California. Orange is looking to dispel stereotypes about Native Americans by showing many different types of characters, struggling with related issues of poverty, unemployment, addiction, and racial identity. At the same time, there were so many different narrators I sometimes found it hard to feel emotionally connected to this story.
This is a book with a strong point of view, one that is clearly defined by Orange’s very compelling prologue. Although one of the difficulties I had with this book is that I think strong fiction should generally be able to stand on its own, without a prologue to explain it. Many of the concepts he raises in the prologue are repeated by his characters throughout the book — sometimes in a very moving way, but other times in a way that felt a bit forced.
The book begins with Dene Oxendene, who is applying for a city grant to videotape Native Americans telling authentic stories. This idea of telling stories becomes a common theme.
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?
I liked the way this book centered around the powwow, a large community event taking place at the Oakland Coliseum. Through these twelve characters, we see those who take great pride in their culture and identity as a Native American. We see characters who are just becoming aware of that identity. And we see others for whom the powwow is just an opportunity to advance their careers or to gain financially. Each of these characters approaches the event differently. Orange wants us to see the complexity of these characters, and the idea that the “Urban Indian” can’t be defined in a simple way. I appreciated that Orange isn’t trying to show us an idealized view of Native Americans.
I really like books that are about a particular place, whether it’s a place I’ve been or not. I really liked that this was a book about Oakland, and that Oakland itself seems to be a character in the story. Orange gives us a lot of detail about the coliseum and the neighborhoods where this takes place, even characters riding on buses, and I liked that I could really visualize where the story was happening.
At one point Orange’s characters are discussing privilege, and I particularly liked this exchange. I think it’s a good illustration of Orange’s perspective and writing style.
This is the thing: If you have the option to not think about or even consider history, whether you learned it right or not, or whether it even deserves consideration, that’s how you know you’re on board the ship that serves hors d’oeuvres and fluffs your pillows, while others are out at sea, swimming or drowning, or clinging to little inflatable rafts that they have to take turns keeping inflated, people short of breath, who’ve never even heard of the words hors d’oeuvres or fluff.
The title is a reference to a quote by Gertrude Stein about attempting to return to her childhood home in rural Oakland and discovering that there was “no there there.” Orange also references a song of this title by Radiohead:
Dene puts his headphones on, shuffles the music on his phone, skips several songs and stays on “There There,” by Radiohead. The hook is “Just ’cause you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there.”
I liked the intersections of some of the characters. But there were a few that felt way too coincidental. Now maybe this community of Native Americans in Oakland is a very small group and you could expect them all to know each other. But given the size of Oakland, and the size of the powwow as it’s described, that seems unlikely. So while it makes sense for the characters who are working on the powwow to meet, it doesn’t make sense for so many characters to run into each other at a huge event. That bothered me a bit and also distracted my attention from the vivid storytelling towards the end.
This might not be one of my favorite books of the year but it had a lot of strengths, and it was a book worth reading.