Tommy Orange’s “There There” is a startlingly ambitious and moving first novel. It’s a story grounded in the cityscape of Oakland, Calif., and in the lives of a dozen people, Native characters whose life trajectories all bring them to the Big Oakland Powwow on the same day.
There’s a plot by some of the characters to rob the powwow prize money; there’s a young boy who will dance his first powwow with steps learned from YouTube videos in an attempt to claim some of that prize money; there’s a filmmaker who wins a grant to let Oakland’s Native residents tell their stories; there is a pair of young adults, Blue and Edwin, who helped organize the powwow; there’s the powwow emcee who is Edwin’s never-known father and there’s Jacquie Red Feather, who is likely Blue’s birth mother. And there’s trouble when the robbery goes wrong.
Such story arcs pull us into the lives of these characters. It’s a mark of Orange’s talent that in a book with a dozen protagonists, each emerges as a fully realized person, with their own distinct ways of talking and seeing the world. Some characters are spoken of in the third person while others speak for themselves in the first person.
In a particularly clever move, Orange tells the story of Thomas Frank’s struggle with alcohol abuse in the second person, collapsing the distance a reader may be tempted to feel for a wounded character. “Coming out of your twenties you started to drink every night. There were many reasons for this. But you did it without a thought. Most addictions aren’t premeditated.” In such a passage we literally become Thomas Frank — and if we judge him, we judge ourselves.
While this sort of mixing of characters and voices might be interpreted as showboating, Orange’s is a greater ambition. In the 1950s the U.S. government initiated a program to assimilate Native people to mainstream society by offering them incentives to move into cities like Minneapolis and Oakland. This relocation was supposed to be the last step in a 500-year “genocidal campaign. But,” as Orange puts it, “the city made us new, and we made it ours.”
In a novel that is more layered than Sherman Alexie’s best fiction and in prose that is as lyrical and humane as Louise Erdrich’s, Orange brilliantly evokes the complexity of this “new” community. Sure, he wants to show the struggles people face, but even more he wants to show this community’s life. He wants us to see how the city made “us new,” to show that while government policy sought Native erasure, Native experience itself bends toward life and we need books like “There There” that lean toward that.
Carter Meland, a writer of Anishinaabe heritage, teaches American Indian Literature at the University of Minnesota. His novel, “Stories for a Lost Child,” was a finalist for a 2018 Minnesota Book Award.
By: Tommy Orange.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 294 pages, $25.95.
Event: 7 p.m. June 27, Lake of the Isles Lutheran Church, 2020 W. Lake of the Isles Parkway, Mpls., hosted by Birchbark Books.