By the end of the first chapter of “There There,” Tommy Orange’s debut novel, I experienced a familiar feeling. It last struck me when I read Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel, “The Sympathizer,” a thrill that comes from two simultaneous realizations. First: This book is important — socially, culturally, even politically. Second: Forget importance — this is great writing, period.
“There There” follows the intersecting lives of Native Americans in Oakland. Each chapter shifts to a different point of view as the book jumps from Tony Loneman to Dene Oxendene to Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, through a dozen characters in all. Orange renders them all as emphatically real, capable of surprising us yet always convincing. They deliver mail, work on an independent film, stare at their phones, play the drums, go to AA meetings, protest, surf the Internet, plot crimes.
This structure could easily have fragmented into a pile of character studies. To the contrary, this book is a ride. Before the end of the first chapter, Orange drives the reader forward with a keen sense of anticipation, a combination of mystery and suspense, wonder and dread. As in Colum McCann’s “Let the Great World Spin” or Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” diffuse story lines weave together, ever tighter, as characters search out their links to each other and to their own cultures.
The structure of the book is the key not only to its literary success but also to the illumination of its neglected and misunderstood subject matter. If non-Natives (and I am one) think of Native Americans at all, they picture them in rural North Dakota, Oklahoma or Arizona. But more than 70 percent of Natives now live in metropolitan areas, The New York Times reported in 2013, compared with 45 percent in 1970 and 8 percent in 1940. The Times observed that federal policy has encouraged this migration off reservations, with no particular benefit. About 27 percent of Native Americans live in poverty, according to the Times, twice the national average, with rates above 45 percent in Minneapolis and 50 percent in Rapid City, S.D. And yet, such struggle is only one side of their story. It exists alongside thriving traditions, artistic genius, innovative scholarship and social entrepreneurship.
“There There” puts human faces on these facts, in part through a powerful sense of place. The characters’ lives are embedded in Oakland. Their landmarks are a dead escalator at the Fruitvale BART station, the fountain behind the Mormon temple, eviction notices on the front door and, especially, the Coliseum. Still, an invisible tether holds some of them to distant reservations or lost family members.
But who are Native Americans? Theirs is not simply a generic minority experience. Captivity and enslavement snatched up Africans of different languages, nations and religions and threw them together on a strange continent. The process created a new people, African-Americans. But Natives were already here, living in everything from great empires to small bands, with their own vast array of cultures, economies, languages and environmental adaptations. European invaders imposed a common designation on them, “Indians,” yet never erased their individual nationalities. The result is a multifaceted identity, both general and particular — a divergent unity.
“We are Indians and Native Americans, American Indians and Native American Indians, North American Indians, Natives, NDNs and Ind’ins, Status Indians and Non-Status Indians, First Nation Indians and Indians so Indian we either think about the fact of it every single day or we never think about it at all,” Orange writes. “We are enrolled members of tribes and disenrolled members, ineligible members and tribal council members. We are full blood, half-breed, quadroon, eighths, sixteenths, thirty-seconds. Undoable math. Insignificant remainders.”
The characters in Orange’s novel are a peculiar kind of refugee — refugees on their own continent, refugees of a world that was crushed but never forgotten, refugees in time. Orange can be hilarious as well as insightful as he evokes this. When Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield’s mother tells her they are going to Alcatraz, the girl recalls, “We’d been over there to celebrate not celebrating Thanksgiving.” Pondering the meaning of “Bear Shield,” she asks, “Why do we got names like we do?” Her mother replies, “They come from old Indian names. We had our own way of naming before white people come over and spread all those dad names around in order to keep power with the dads.”
The first chapter ends with a moment of recognition — a sense of identity flickering awake. So artful is Orange’s construction that we only realize in the final pages that it is not a passing moment, but a mooring for the entire narrative. The conclusion delivers long-dreaded heartbreak along with an utterly unexpected transformation, and we grasp that we have been told a tale of great meaning by a master.
Three Books About the Native American Experience
“Grand Avenue” by Greg Sarris(1994):Sarris, currently tribal chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, published this now-classic collection of stories about Native Americans living in Santa Rosa, and has followed it with such works as “How a Mountain Was Made,” released last year.
• “WHEREAS: Poems” by Layli Long Soldier (2017):This astonishing book of poetry, a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award, weaves together history and the now, exploring what it means to be, as Long Soldier writes, a dual citizen of the United States and the Oglala Lakota Nation.
• “The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado” by Elliott West (1998): Tommy Orange is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, and readers can find no better source on the 19th-century history of these peoples than this Francis Parkman Prize winner, a masterpiece that interweaves environmental, religious, political, economic and military history.
- By Tommy Orange
- 304 Pages, Knopf, $25.95