In the opening pages of his debut novel, Tommy Orange weaves a story not of fiction, but of history. In visceral, searing, and beautifully simplistic style, Orange explains the circumstances Indigenous North Americans are born into. Gun violence, inter-generational trauma, alcoholism, disease – no brutal, heart-wrenching topic is left untouched in the blistering opening essay. This brief preface, and another similar interlude mid-way through the novel, set the stage for a story about colonialism and the lasting effects it has left on Indigenous communities across the continent.
“When we go to tell our stories, people think we want it to have gone different. People want to say things like ‘sore losers’ and ‘move on already,’ ‘quit playing the blame game.’ But is it a game? Only those who have lost as much as we have see the particularly nasty slice of smile on someone who thinks they’re winning when they say ‘get over it’.” - Tommy Orange, There There
There There is a story about stories. Over the course of the 300 page novel, at least a dozen characters are introduced and their backstories explored. One is a young man hoping to secure a grant to make a documentary, another is an older woman who struggles with addiction and her decision to give up a child years before. While many of them don’t know each other at the beginning, they are all intricately connected by a web of shared history and trauma. Each of them, for their own personal reasons, is planning to attend the Big Oakland Powwow, where their experiences will intersect in life-altering ways.
“We all came to the Big Oakland Powwow for different reasons. The messy, dangling strands of our lives got pulled into a braid – tied to the back of everything we’d been doing all along to get us here. We’ve been coming from miles. And we’ve been coming for years, generations, lifetimes, layered in brayer and handwoven regalia, beaded and sewn together, feathered, braided, blessed, and cursed.” - Tommy Orange, There There
There are many plotlines to follow and personalities to remember, and Orange asks a lot of his readers. But topics like the ones presented in There There – colonization and trauma and illness – are not the stuff of relaxing beach-reads. Orange’s high expectations for his readers are necessary. The jumping timelines and points of view require attention, and attention is something so many of us have failed to give to marginalized communities throughout history.
Despite its important content, There There wouldn’t work without Orange’s strong and elegant writing. With so many characters to juggle and such a complex plot, this novel could easily have been a failure. But Orange pulls each thread together deftly and with flare, showcasing originality in his writing that makes it almost incomparable to anything else.
There There's ending, while fitting perfectly with the rest of the story, is not satisfying - and it is not intended to be. It is a novel of sadness and hardship and moments of hope. It is a book about the various ways in which people react to the situations they are forced into, and the reality that no response to difficulty can be perfectly categorized as right or wrong, because so many small events have formed the path to the decision that was made.
This book is a must-read. It is educational and original, and written in a style that will draw readers in and leave them raw and contemplative. There There will make you think about the changes you can make in your life to be more accepting and accommodating and helpful, and that is it’s real strength.
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