Thursday, January 27, 2022

Book 320: There There

"He moves in front of the mirror and his feathers shake. He catches the hesitation, the worry in his eyes, there in the mirror. He worries suddenly that Opal might come into the room, where Orvil is doing..what? There would be too much to explain. He wonders what she would do if she caught him. Ever since they were in her care, Opal had been openly against any of them doing anything Indian. She treated it all like it was something they could decide for themselves when they were old enough. Like drinking or driving or smoking or voting. Indianing." 

Dates read: June 7-10, 2019

Rating: 8/10

Lists/awards: American Book Award

DNA tests can do cool things these days. Not only does mine show me that I'm part Polish, it can even identify the area in Poland where my family came from! Does it actually matter, at the end of the day? Well, no. If I ever do visit Poland, it would almost certainly be to go to one of the major cities, not the tiny village in Podkarpackie Voivodeship that my great-grandfather left over a century ago. But it's interesting to be able to confirm that tie to the past, to get a better sense of where I come from and what my family's story is.

For Native Americans living on reservations in a community that includes elders, a sense of connection with the past is probably more tangible. But of course, that's not where all Native Americans live. Plenty of them live in cities, and it's an attempt to put together a pow-wow in Oakland that brings together the characters of Tommy Orange's debut novel, There There. Through changing point-of-view chapters from a wide cast, the book tells the story of how the pow-wow brings people together in unexpected ways...and what happens when a group of young men eye the prize money for the dance competition as a target for robbery. Common throughout are the questions the characters have about identity, and what it means to be an Indian in a large city.

The character wrestling most with identity and meaning is Dene Oxendene, who wins a competition for grant money that he intends to use to record Indian people telling their own stories about their lives. He sees the pow-wow as an opportunity to film many people at once. But there's also Edwin, whose interest in participating in the event, and breaking out of his self-imposed social isolation, is sparked by the discovery of his Indian father via social media. The internet is also how teenage Orvil tries to connect with his culture, as his stern grandmother Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield (who was taken to the AIM takeover of Alcatraz as a child, along with her sister Jacquie Red Feather, by their unstable mother) who is raising him and his brothers refuses to talk about being Indian with them. Orvil learns tribal dances from YouTube, and plans to enter the dance competition. But the internet also provides a group of young men (including Tony Loneman, angry at the scorn he's received because of his fetal alcohol syndrome) with the schematics to 3D print guns from plastic that could be snuck past the metal detectors at the pow-wow, so they can get money to remedy a drug deal gone wrong.

Tommy Orange is a dazzling talent and this is a very good book. I would say that the only thing holding it back from greatness, for me, is that I wished it was told with a more traditional story structure. While each character's perspective was distinct and important, I found it hard to keep track of who everyone was in relation to everyone else, and a more well-delineated central narrative thread would have, for me, made the book's impact even more powerful. But the reality is that it's powerful anyways. I really cannot overstate how good Orange's writing is. These characters feel like they actually exist in the world, like each one of them, no matter how small a part they play, have full lives and histories that we're only able to get hints of. He switches back and forth between first- and third-person perspective, and even writes one chapter in the second person, which didn't add anything narratively as far as I was concerned as much as feeling like the exuberance of an artist pushing at the boundaries of what he can do.

In a way, this felt like an answer to one of the most well-known writers of Native American adult literature today: Louise Erdrich. While Erdrich's work focuses primarily on women, particularly older women, on reservations in the northern Great Plains, Orange's novel highlights men, especially young men, in a large Californian city. What they share is a story structure in which there are multiple characters that are the focus of one chapter at a time in a non-chronological narrative, as well as a focus on how to live in the world as an Indian today. Erdrich, who has won the National Book Award and been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, is a big name to invite comparisons with, but Orange lives up to it. This book is a must-read, and I can't wait to see what Tommy Orange does next.  

One year ago, I was reading: All Girls

Two years ago, I was reading: Followers

Three years ago, I was reading: Bad Blood

Four years ago, I was reading: Mansfield Park

Five years ago, I was reading: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

Six years ago, I was reading: Creative Mythology

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