I finished There There by Tommy Orange last night and what a great book it is! It tells the story of a group of Native Americans living in or heading to Oakland, California. You hear early on about a big Oakland Powwow that’s going to happen soon, and the novel moves steadily toward that event. Along the way we meet a range of people: 12 characters of various ages and experiences, each of whom takes a turn being the focus of the story. There are children trying to figure out what it means to be Native, grown-ups dealing with alcoholism and destructive marriages, parents and grandparents worried about or estranged from their children and grandchildren, young people trying to pull their lives together, or feeling pressure from their parents to do so.
I found each of these stories compelling, and as I figured out what was likely to happen at the Powwow, the book became hard to put down. I cared about every one of Orange’s characters. So many of them were struggling with what it means to be Native American — some are mixed race and are uncertain how they feel about being a mix of white and Native. Some don’t know much about their heritage, don’t know what tribe they are from, for example, and some feel awkward claiming Native heritage, particularly if they look “white.” One character learns Native dances by watching YouTube. We see these characters struggle with uncertainty about identity but also how that identity has shaped their lives in profound ways. It’s very moving.
This book is getting a lot of attention right now, and I can see why. I hope it continues to do well and that we get many more novels from Tommy Orange.