I don’t keep up with new books that are high on the best-seller lists and getting rave reviews from many directions, but I do see some of those raves in passing, and a few things about There There by Tommy Orange caught my attention. For one thing, it takes place in Oakland, where I lived for three years way back in the late sixties. For another, there was mention of a big Native American pow-wow, which interested me because I have an unsold story where a character has a flashback to a pow wow in her childhood, but I have no personal experience of one. The third thing is the title, which I took at first as the familiar comfort-phrase or maybe Gertrude Stein’s famous comment about Oakland. But it turns out be a response of sorts to Stein, whose “There is no there there” has been taken out of context as dissing the city, when in fact it was her reaction to visiting what had been her childhood home and finding that nothing familiar remained.
What Tommy Orange does is show emphatically the There that both is and is not there for the thousands of urban native Americans living in Oakland, and by extension other big cities. His characters live in typical urban poverty for the most part, though a few are better off, but through all of them a sense of not belonging is interwoven with memories handed down from their ancestors of the time when the land belonged to them, before it was stolen.
There are searing passages of historical truths that aren’t in most history books, but the major impact of the book comes through the characters, in the form of separate chapters for each, sometimes alternating, with increasing indications that their lives will be entangled, and that they will all come together at the big urban pow-wow being held at the Coliseum where the Oakland Athletics baseball team plays in season. The dozen characters are varied, from young brothers racing through West Oakland on their bikes with the ever-present phones of today’s kids, to a computer ace making plastic guns for gangsters with a 3-D printer, to sisters whose mother dragged them to a big Indian occupation of Alcatraz thirty years ago, to dancers in regalia and ritual drummers gathering to perform at the pow-wow and find a sense of belonging, to an amateur film-maker on a grant to collect first-person stories, and more. Each of them has a voice, an inner train of thought, and circumstances that ring utterly true. Threads of alcoholism and domestic violence run through the story, but so do family ties and love and sacrifice and even a good deal of humor.
I was swept up into their lives, and at the same time awed by the author’s skill at realism on the one hand and passages of powerful and even ferociously poetic prose on the other. It’s hard to tell more about the plot without spoilers, but you become aware that this is the both a wildly original book and the kind of modern mainstream novel that can get away with violence and ambiguity at the end.
It turned out that only one of my original reasons for reading the book mattered. The West Oakland of today and the East Oakland of the long ago days when I lived there don’t have much in common. And my hope of reading a detailed account of a real pow-wow didn’t exactly work out. But I did find out the truth of Gertrude Stein’s reaction to Oakland, and how very deeply it applies to the urban Indian population. Whatever my expectations were, they were vastly exceeded by the unique and passionate skill of Tommy Orange as a writer. I even have to admit that all those rave reviews had some real basis. Maybe I should pay more attention to things like that.