The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 12 October 2019

There There

by Tommy Orange

The history of European dominance, even genocide, of native peoples in the Western Hemisphere is truly bleak. Shameful. Those of us who are not of Native descent would do best to check our historical prejudices, traditions and education at the door before undertaking this desceptively zippy, but utterly compelling novel by an author who, himself, is of Native ancestry and who occupies the curious niche of urban Indian. The book is famous partly for its searing opening essay, a stark reflection upon a brutality endured at the hands of a sociopathic colonial force that transformed the North and South American continents. It is a story that has largely been written by the victors. The losers have an entirely different angle on that history, and it is a reality that the dominant American (and mostly white) culture simply refuses to acknowledge. In this essay, Tommy Orange reminds us that any fundamental reconciliation of that history may yet be a very long way off. And that is just the opening salvo in this book.

The basic story here is the approaching Big Powwow at the Oakland Coliseum stadium, home of the Oakland Raiders, as seen through the eyes of a dozen and more characters who are heading there, each with a particular history rooted in a modern and largely urban Native culture, and with goals both hopeful and sinister. These are not the Indians of a Lone Ranger serial, not the Indians of a Cleveland baseball team, not even the Indians of the first Thanksgiving, and certainly not the Indians of Dances with Wolves. This is a modern American subculture struggling to maintain meaning and identity tied to its historical heritage, is all too familiar with resurgent American racism and cultural chauvanism, and is set upon the task of finding its way in a techno-urban twenty-first century. The story sprawls from the AIM occupation of Alcatraz, through tumultuous family upheavals rooted in discrimination and poverty, to this one hopeful event of local expression. It is an episodic tapestry of stories, almost vignettes, of ultimately interwoven characters. This is Tommy Orange's first novel, and it reveals a writer unafraid of delving deep into questions of identity, family connection, death, and a revealing connection to time and the earth. Yes, it sounds like a lot, and this book would reward multiple readings. Its tales are descpetively short, so Orange wastes no time digging deep into his characters and their reactions to the world they occupy. It is as magical as an Indian dance in full regalia, and as gritty as bloody street violence. Using spare but driving prose, Orange weaves a engrossing, revealing, emotionally complex tale. Other writers will only dream they could write this well. Highly recommended.

(For this book, Orange was awarded the 2019 American Book Award.)

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