Book Review: There There

The Big Oakland Powwow provides a window into modern Native American life in Tommy Orange’s searing debut novel

There There

The danger of the single story is that it becomes responsible for speaking for everyone, rather than being one piece of a larger tapestry. It's a hefty, deeply unfair pressure placed on any writer whose community has been largely denied the cultural stage. Certainly Native and indigenous peoples have been put in that position.

From the first page of There There's prologue, where he follows the iconography of Indian heads from massacres to TV test signs to mascots, it's clear that debut author Tommy Orange is keenly aware of this weight. Before he embarks on his deft and expansive novel about tragedy at an urban powwow, he gives us a thesis on the past's impact on contemporary American Indian life: "They took everything and ground it down to dust as fine as gunpowder, they fired their guns into the air in victory and the strays flew out into the nothingness of histories written wrong and meant to be forgotten. Stray bullets and consequences are landing on our unsuspecting bodies even now."

If There There's starting point is broad, the heart of the book feels remarkably intimate. Orange has us flitting among 12 different protagonists, some of whose lives are intertwined, some of whose are unrelated, all of whom are anticipating attending the Big Oakland Powwow. From the outset, we're aware of a plan to rob the event, a plan that cannot possibly go well, but even with that underlying thread of dread, There There finds satisfying richness in the minutiae of its characters' lives – their daily victories and losses, enduring frustrations, acts of tenderness, and senses of wonder. The result is an impression of Orange as the keen-eyed witness of this precise moment in time. He sees a community "fighting for decades to be recognized as a present-tense people," and he sees that that comes with a high cost.

There There

by Tommy Orange
Knopf, 304 pp., $25.95

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