A compelling story of urban Native Americans as they converge on a Powwow in Oakland in There There.
There There by Tommy Orange
Genre: General Fiction
Award: PEN/Hemingway winner, Pulitzer and National Book nominee
Published 2018, 294 pages
This book was all over the "best of" lists a couple years ago and I meant to read it but didn't get around to it. It's been sitting on my shelf about a year and I moved it to the top of my nightstand pile because it fits a reading challenge category. Sometimes you just need some motivation, right?
This ambitious first novel follows a variety of Cheyenne characters as they make plans to go the first Powwow in Oakland, CA. Each chapter focuses on a different character, their back story and what is motivating them to visit the Powwow.
"We are young people and old, every kind of Indian in between. We made powwows because we needed a place to be together. Something intertribal, something old, something to make us money, something we could work toward, for our jewelry, our songs, our dances, our drum. We keep powwowing because there aren't very many places where we get to all be together, where we get to see and hear each other."
Set in Oakland, the characters run the gamut from old to young, male and female, drug dealers/alcoholics to recovering addicts. Many are related in some way but usually estranged - so many broken families. Each character serves to illustrate a different aspect of the urban Indian experience. Especially with some of the younger characters, they are struggling to find their Native identity, to find some way to connect to their culture, but it's really hard to do.
A stereotype of Indians is that they are all alcoholics. There are many references to it and how different characters respond to it or deal with it.....and each of them feels real.
"It's not the alcohol. There's not some special relationship between Indians and alcohol. It's just what's cheap, available, legal. It's what we have to go to when it seems like we have nothing else left."
There There is written in a style that feels very authentic and the stories of each of the dozen characters rings true. That's the strength and the flaw for me. While each character is interesting on its own, there are SO many of them and even though their stories are each individual, they're also similar in a way and intertwined; I had such a hard time keeping them straight. By the time I reached the end, which, by the way, is appropriate and satisfying, but I couldn't "root" for one or another outcome because I couldn't remember the characters.
"The wound that was made when white people came and took all that they took has never healed. An unattended wound gets infected. Becomes a new kind of wound like the history of what actually happened became a new kind history. All these stories that we haven't been telling all this time, that we haven't been listening to, are just part of what we need to heal. Not that we're broken. And don't make the mistake of calling us resilient. To not have been destroyed, to not have given up, to have survived, is no badge of honor. Would you call an attempted murder victim resilient?"
I feel like I learned a lot and my perceptions have been expanded. The insights into a culture and the difficulties of the characters was immersive and sometimes emotional. It's a very powerful book and one that I think would be a worthwhile bookclub choice.
Photo by Andrew James via unsplash; Terrie Purkey feathers