The Hippo


Apr 24, 2019








There There, by Tommy Orange
(Knopf, 304 pages)


There are two prevailing images of Native Americans in popular culture: one of the past, where they share an allegedly peaceful meal with the Pilgrims, and one of modern day, where they sit dejectedly on a reservation. These images have been supplied to us from the winners of history — white people. Tommy Orange never saw a reflection of his own experiences as someone who is half Native and grew up in urban Oakland. His Native community had either never lived on a reservation or had chosen to move away for lack of opportunities. But since there is little representation of Native Americans in literature to begin with and exactly zero novels about modern urban Native Americans, instead of writing a novel from just one point of view, Orange chose to write There There from 12 different points of view.
When reading There There, one would never know that Tommy Orange is a debut novelist. He captures the unique voices of a dozen different characters with distinct experiences and manages to overlap their stories seamlessly. Some point-of-view characters are nested in previous chapters as side characters, and their significance becomes larger and more obvious as the novel progresses. The links could be as tenuous as distant coworkers or as close as siblings, and Orange provides a healthy variety. Readers will have fun guessing which characters will intersect next and how.
There is Tony Loneman, who was born with fetal alcohol syndrome and has spent a lifetime trying to embrace his differences, living in spite of them. There is Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, whose mother moves her and her half-sister Jacquie to the island of Alcatraz in protest of the treatment of Native Americans, but only after they can’t ignore their eviction notices anymore. There is Jacquie Red Feather, years in the future, who works with substance abuse and suicide prevention programs but is only 11 days sober herself. There is Edwin Black, who has been raised by his white mother and tracks down his Native father on Facebook. There is Dene Oxdene, who inherits a documentary film project from his uncle to capture a collection of different Native voices. (Sound familiar?)
Orange addresses the oppression, the stereotypes and the ordinary problems Native Americans face every day with a poetic flourish. Opal and Jacquie’s mother conjures the image of a spider web being both a home and a trap, which Jacquie likens to drinking. But at the same time, Jacquie’s Alcoholics Anonymous leader tells her, “There’s not some special relationship between Indians and alcohol.” Alcohol serves as a cheap and legal coping mechanism for intergenerational pain and unfortunate lots in life, but that is certainly not unique to this one demographic of people. 
In another chapter, Orange creates a little levity when describing the intense frustration Edwin feels about constipation. Who knew a bathroom break could be turned into a lyrical metaphor for feeling stuck and uncertain about the future?
The characters’ paths all converge at a powwow toward the end of the novel. For some of them, this is their first real contact with Native American culture. Many of them have been wrestling with the idea of what it means to be Native over the course of the novel, and this is where it all comes to a head. If they didn’t grow up on a reservation or if their parents didn’t teach them Native customs, do they have any right to don regalia, to dance, or to beat on the ceremonial drums? But if they don’t go through the motions to preserve their history, will their ways of life be further lost to future generations?
The perspectives get shorter and shorter to convey simultaneous and quick passages of time. Tension builds masterfully as the climax of the novel is hinted at, set up and unfolded. Every character is revisited. Their stories wrap up from their own point of view, their stories wrap up from the other characters’ points of views. They are all together; they are all on their own paths. They all meet under the guise of being Native American, but each of them has their own interpretation of what that means. And these depictions barely scratch the surface of all the voices out there. A 
— Katherine Ouellette 

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