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a Book Review of the novel by Tommy Orange
Honestly, I read There, There by Tommy Orange, because a New York Times book list told me it would be good. I almost stopped reading because I knew it was going to be sad, but despite my best efforts to dislike this book, I ended up enjoying it.
There, There is a novel about the experiences of several Native American people before and during a fictional attack at a pow-wow in Oakland. Even though each of the characters only appears in 2-3 chapters, they are extremely vivid and distinct. It was so evocative, I googled to confirm that There, There was genuine fiction and not based on real events. The overall feeling of the book is well described by an analogy within the book itself. One of the characters, Dene Oxendene, is directing a documentary about Indian experiences. His gimmick is to set up the camera, leave the room, and allow Native People to tell their stories, unedited and unsupervised. Each of the vignettes in There, There feels like a real person’s story, told without editing or censorship, raw with intensity.
The main body of the text is divided into four parts, titled: “Remain”, “Reclaim”, “Return”, and “Pow-wow”. The chapters mostly, but not wholly, occur in chronological order. Unlike most novels, There, There has both a prologue and interlude. These two sections are unique in style compared to the other sections — they are written more like poetry than prose — and they create a framing narrative that grounds the story within the context of Native American experiences in modern society and culture. The prelude focuses on the modern urban experience of Native peoples: “We ride buses, trains, and cars across, over, and under concrete plains. Being Indian has never been about returning to the land. The land is everywhere or nowhere.” (pg. 11)
The prelude and interlude also provide an avenue to directly discuss the themes of the novel and, consequently, the intent and opinions of the author. For example, in the interlude, Orange rants about people’s lack of perspective and awareness concerning violent attacks:
“A shooter. As many times as it happens, as we see it happen on our screens, we still walk around in our lives thinking: No, not us, that happens to them, the people on the other side of the screen, the victims, their families, we don’t know those people, we don’t even know people who know those people, we’re once and twice removed from most of what we see on the other side of the screen, especially that awful man, always a man, we watch and feel the horror, the unbelievable act, for a day, for two whole days, for a week, we post and click links and like and don’t like and repost and then, and then it’s like it didn’t happen, we move on, the next thing comes.”
Orange’s words are shocking because they simultaneously elicit rage and guilt. This intensity is representative of the style of the entire novel. The tension continually escalates after a Chekhov’s gun, in the form of a 3D printed gun, is placed in the scene in Chapter 1.
In both the prologue and interlude, Orange uses the pronoun “we” with liberty. Who is “we”? All people, or all Native Peoples, or all allies? By using “we”, Orange implies that he himself is part of this group that does not do enough, or care enough, about the plight of others. Orange also indicates that the ideas and thoughts he presents are not just his own, and similarly, the onus is not just his.
I highlighted more in this book than any book I’ve read in a long time, as you may be able to tell from the large number of quotes in this post. The novel follows the story of heroes, villains, and victims (many of the characters fall into multiple buckets). Orange does not try to justify villainous decisions, or put heroes on a pedestal, instead he lets the characters’ backgrounds, motivations, and actions speak for themselves. The reader is permitted to peek inside the complex internal thoughts of his (fictional) characters. I wanted to know more about each character; the book could have been twice as long (although I would have been even more hesitant about reading it because 600 page books are scary (eg. Moby Dick)). There, There is passionate and intense; I highly recommend it.
The Don’t Call Me Ishmael Official Book Rating, Sponsored by What Would Moby Dick Do (WWMDD):
5/5. A Whale of a Tale.