There There by Tommy Orange: A Review
Like an unfinished puzzle, There There made me want to start it over again immediately after finishing.
Protagonists abound; one voice per chapter, characters and families that seem at first unrelated, united only by living in Oakland and by their Native American roots. Connections are revealed like excavations only partially uncovered, with the ultimate shape hinted at but uncertain.
Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield is Jacquie Red Feather’s sister. Orvil and Lony and Loother Red Feather call Opal Grandma. Thomas Frank and Edwin Black and Blue all work at the Indian Center. Dene Oxendene’s uncle Lucas was like a brother to Opal. Daniel Gonzales is Octavio Gomez’s cousin, whose influence over brothers Carlos, Charles and Calvin Johnson is forged with blood. Tony Loneman’s name is purposeful. Bill Davis works at the Oakland Coliseum, where the Big Oakland Powwow will encompass them all.
Author Tommy Orange gives us vivid word photographs, then infuses them with subjective truths, like the interviews that Dene captures: authentic, vulnerable, determined. Storm forces echo throughout There There. These Oakland residents survive in the aftermath of a great disaster: they labor through gulfs of knowledge, severed connections, missing persons, material poverty, and the variety of medicines used to treat trauma. Their stories are specific and yet familiar to many living in this Town.
I wonder, does the degree to which the reader identifies with the people in There There depend on their own experiences of being “Urban Natives”? This gifted author walks a shifting line, dances with the book’s main question: what does it mean to be Native?
For more insights into the experiences of “Urban Natives” in the Bay Area, read this article by Joe Whittle.