There There

There There by Tommy Orange

Jacquie Red Feather is newly sober and trying to make it back to the family she left behind in shame in Oakland. Dene Oxendene is pulling his life together after his uncle’s death and has come to work the powwow and to honor his uncle’s memory. Edwin Black has come to find his true father. Thomas Frank has come to drum the Grand Entry. Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield has come to watch her nephew Orvil Red Feather; Orvil has taught himself Indian dance through YouTube videos, and he has come to the Big Oakland Powwow to dance in public for the very first time. Tony Loneman is a young Native American boy whose future seems destined to be as bleak as his past, and he has come to the Powwow with darker intentions — intentions that will destroy the lives of everyone in his path. 

Fierce, angry, funny, groundbreaking — Tommy Orange’s first novel is a wondrous and shattering portrait of an America few of us have ever seen. There There is a multi-generational, relentlessly paced story about violence and recovery, hope and loss, identity and power, dislocation and communion, and the beauty and despair woven into the history of a nation and its people. A glorious, unforgettable debut.

Author: Tommy Orange | Publisher: Knopf

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Rating: 5/5

“We all came to the powwow for different reasons. The messy, dangling threads of our lives got pulled into a braid–tied to the back of everything we’d been doing all along to get us here. There will be death and playing dead, there will be screams and unbearable silences, forever-silences, and a kind of time-travel, at the moment the gunshots start, when we look around and see ourselves as we are, in our regalia, and something in our blood will recoil then boil hot enough to burn through time and place and memory. We’ll go back to where we came from, when we were people running from bullets at the end of that old world. The tragedy of it all will be unspeakable, that we’ve been fighting for decades to be recognized as a present-tense people, modern and relevant, only to die in the grass wearing feathers.”

With some books, all you can say is, “Wow.” There There absolutely blew me away, which for some reason surprised me. I knew it had gotten a lot of acclaim, and I myself waited patiently for my library copy for months. So of course it was going to be really good. But it wasn’t — it was great.

There’s a big powwow coming up in Oakland, CA, and each character we meet is connected to it somehow. There are people there to perform, to watch, to connect with long-lost parents — and there’s a group of young men who are there to rob it. One by one, we get to know these people and their backstories, and we root for all of them. They barrel toward an ending that you know is coming and desperately want to stop, and the conclusion will leave you shaking.

This novel features such a wide cast of characters that there’s a list of them with short descriptions at the beginning of the book. That was actually really helpful as readers met new people and returned to those we’d already met. With so many characters, we don’t get to spend very much time in the POV of each of them — still, I felt like I got to know them pretty well, including each of their rich and personal histories.

I need to read more books by Native American voices — that’s a fact. If you do, too, then this is a great place to start. There is so much here about what it’s like to live in today’s world as a part of that heritage — fully or tangentially — and so much experience that I just never consider as I go about my daily life. Books like this are so valuable to us all, as human beings.

And bonus: Tommy Orange does it with prose that will take your breath away.

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