There There (2018) – Tommy Orange

Title: There There
Author: Tommy Orange
Date published: 2018
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Star Rating ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

These are the stories that nobody tells. They have been erased or hidden away in more convenient places like under the bed or in storage. Locked away so that we can remain blissfully ignorant, the fictional world it seems is no longer being filled solely with the stories of the mainstream and whiteness and The American Dream. I don’t know how you feel about this but I for one have been aching to read more stories of the Native Americans whose position in the United States of America is precarious at best. During that country’s most complex political upheaval this novel is something so much more important than we can possibly realize. All voices that were once (and still are for that matter) marginalized and silenced are needed. They are needed not only for the people of America, but for the citizens of the world, as every decision affects everything regardless of the distance and the walls we build around us.

Tommy Orange’s voice is undeniably important. He writes of urban decay in such a way that it is not the buildings or the economy or the morals that are deemed close to the grave, but the plight of the race that once stood tall upon the land. His story is about a group of seemingly unrelated Native American Indians who all have some connection with Oakland, California. A powwow is going to be taking place soon, and each chapter focuses on the journey each person is taking in order to be there. Every character has a unique and independent reason for attending the event. Edwin Black, a thirty-something male still living with his mother and step-father spends all his time online and therefore no longer feels connected to the real world. His obesity and subsequent insecurity over this has hindered him socially  but he is still determined to one day become a writer and learn more about his culture. Edwin however is not the hero of the story though I did find his story the most intriguing.

Other important characters include Toney Loneman, a 21 year old man who is deeply affected by the fact he suffers from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome or the ‘Drome’, as he refers to it. Living with carers all his life Tony considers his facial features a hindrance and falls into the wrong crowd who have rather sinister plans for the Oakland Powwow.

Dene Oxendene is an aspiring filmmaker whose dream is to make a film about ‘Indians’ and refers to himself as “ambiguously non-white”. He plans to go to the powwow in order to ‘collect’ stories from the people attending.

Opal Bear Shield and Jacquie Red Feather are sisters who shared the same mother. Their childhood was a difficult one in which they even spent some time sleeping on the floor of a jail with their mother. When Jacquie is raped and becomes pregnant as a young girl she puts the baby up for adoption and ends up an alcoholic. Many, many years later as the powwow approaches Jacquie is now sober and determined to fix her life for the sake of her 3 orphaned grandchildren.

Orvil Red Feather is one of Jacquie’s grandsons and is determined to compete at the powwow for a cash prize. Dressed in the full Native regalia Orvil secretly practices his dancing with the help of YouTube videos.

Every character is unique in their approach to their heritage and their need to prove that they are in fact Native, will always be Native, but there is an underlying frustration that comes with not understanding that our past both defines us and does not.

Tommy Orange is an enormous talent whose stories, much like his characters, are stories that must be told over and over and over again. Whether we want to hear them or not they are the truth and the truth is the only way to stamp out ignorance and hate. It just takes a really long time.

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