Tommy Orange’s novel, There There, is so accomplished that it can be hard to remember it’s a debut. Set in Oakland, it presents a group portrait of a dozen Native American characters whose lives circle one another before connecting in a shattering denouement. The circumstance of the so-called urban Indian is not a new one; it was memorably explored in David Treuer’s 1999 novel, The Hiawatha, as well as (through a somewhat different filter) in Joseph Mitchell’s 1949 New Yorker essay, “The Mohawks in High Steel.” The point is that, much like other diasporas, Native Americans cannot be defined through a single lens; rather, they represent a culture of many facets, made more diffuse by history and its sins.
This article appears in the Fall 2021 issue of Alta Journal.
Orange’s characters are young and old, male and female, but what they have in common is a recognition of the weight of loss. There’s Tony Loneman, a 21-year-old born with fetal alcohol syndrome (or “The Drome,” as he refers to it) and desperate to find a place for himself, to prove that there are “all kinds of intelligences.” Or Jacquie Red Feather, attempting to work her way through a sobriety that feels like its own form of crisis. “Ten days is the same as a year when you want to drink all the time,” the author writes in her voice.
There There—the title is a riff on Gertrude Stein’s famous comment about Oakland; “there is no there there,” she pointedly observed—is remarkable first, perhaps, for the acuity of these voices, for Orange’s ability to construct complex, moving characters and situations out of language and points of view. Even more vivid, however, is the way he pulls his contrapuntal narrative together—it builds to a culminating event called the Big Oakland Powwow—interweaving the disparate components until the whole thing literally explodes.
At the center of it all is the city of Oakland, which pulses below the novel’s surface like a beating heart. “Urban Indians,” Orange writes, “were the generation born in the city. We’ve been moving for a long time, but the land moves with you like memory. An Urban Indian belongs to the city, and cities belong to the earth.… 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.”•