Book Review: There There by Tommy Orange

What does it mean to be a Native American in a modern world? How Native do you have to be - in the way you look, in the way you behave, in the way you struggle - to be accepted as "Native" by others? When seventy-something percent of Natives now live in urban areas rather than on reservations, how do these perspectives change... and how do the answers change?


Tommy Orange recognized these questions and wrote his debut novel, There There, to bridge this gap. He too is a Native American from an urban landscape (Oakland) rather than a rural one, and he 91sek9O55TL.jpgtackles collecting some of their various plights through more than a dozen characters. 


The novel kicks off with an essay that immediately sobers the reader and pulls no punches, describing the violence Native Americans have had to endure at the hands of white colonizers since their arrival from Europe. Short but articulate, it sets the backdrop for the rest of the stories that are to follow - the characters are not living in the times of this essay, but history's brutal repercussions live on through them, even as they've moved off reservations and settled into urban life. 


We meet twelve or so Native voices that all converge by the end of the novel in ways the reader will sometimes expect and sometimes find surprising. Among them is Jacque Red Feather, trying to maintain sobriety and interested in finding the grandsons she left behind in Oakland. There's Dene Oxendene, whose role is that of a surrogate for the author, as he works to collect stories from urban Natives. Edwin Black can't help but feel like he's a fake and a screw-up, since his mother is white and he doesn't know his Native father. Orvil is fourteen years old and has taught himself traditional dances through YouTube. All these stories and more begin as long chapters that slowly but surely shorten themselves as their connecting threads all converge - "like a tornado," as one book club member put it - at the climactic Big Oakland Powwow. 


This novel was selected as one of Charles City Public Library's Friday Morning Book Club reads this spring. Between the two discussions, There There received mixed reviews. Some members delighted in the unusual subject and appreciated that they were able to read about Native Americans from a different perspective; others found the book difficult to read because its subject matter is, ultimately, depressing. I (Kamryn) had selected it for both viewpoints - I had read the book for the first time in 2019, and I agree that it isn't an easy novel to digest but was able to appreciate the tough questions its characters face and found that it had continuously "stuck with me," so to speak, in the two years since I'd read it. It may not be a feel-good book, but it is an immensely powerful one. 


There There is available to check out at the Charles City Public Library. Contact us or come in to check out a copy today!