Living and Dying the Native American Life in America: There There, by Tommy Orange

My favorite reading experiences either teach me about something I didn’t know much about or shine a light on parts of our culture I am unfamiliar with. Part of the urgency of reading Junot Díaz, for example, is that the stories he tells are usually left on the margins if they get told at all. This is probably why I have such a problem with novels about white guys who can’t get their shit together: that story has been told far too many times.

The comparison to Díaz is apt for There There, which is a collection of interconnected stories involving Native Americans tethered to the Oakland area somehow. Each character is struggling to connect (or disconnect from) their shared Native ancestry, their families, and their complicated relationship to a country that tried to wipe out their stories. These tensions set each of them on a collision course with a robbery at the Big Oakland Powwow–a robbery that will go terribly, violently wrong (no spoiler there, the very first chapter is from one of the characters who will participate in the robbery, and it all unspools from there).

If Orange sometimes goes a little too far with some of his narrative tricks, it’s forgivable because he does such a great job rendering complex, interesting characters. Even the ones who feel a touch clichéd are drawn so well they can’t help but be interesting. Orange also has a masterful grip on tone–building a sense of dread as the Powwow draws closer and closer. I also wrote notes as I progressed through the book, which is something I hadn’t done in a long time. There are some great lines throughout, and I also wanted to figure out a lot of Orange’s frequent references to mirrors/reflections. It’s always a thrill to find a book you want to engage with.

And if the ending leaves a lot of strands hanging, I don’t actually mind at all because it somehow feels satisfying. I have a lot of questions, but they don’t leave me frustrated so much as curious to see what Orange does next.

There There Tommy Orange

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