Twelve Native Americans came to the Big Oakland Powwow for different reasons. Jacquie Red Feather is newly sober and trying to make it back to the family she left behind in shame. Dene Oxendene is pulling his life together after his uncle's death and has come to work the powwow and to honor his uncle's memory. Edwin Frank has come to find his true father. Bobby Big Medicine has come to drum the Grand Entry. Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield has come to watch her nephew Orvil Red Feather. Orvil has taught himself Indian dance through YouTube videos, and he has come to the powwow to dance in public for the very first time. Tony Loneman is a young Native American boy whose future seems destined to be as bleak as his past, and he has come to the Powwow with darker intentions -- intentions that will destroy the lives of everyone in his path
“We stayed because the city sounds like a war, and you can’t leave a war once you’ve been, you can only keep it at bay”
This multi-generational novel focuses on twelve Native American characters, all living a hard-scrabble life in the environs of Oakland. All these characters are planning on attending the Big Oakland Pow Wow. How each of these people make this journey and cross paths with each other, is the heart of this story.
This is a stunning debut. The writing is fierce, angry and poetic. There is beauty in these characters, but also a dark sadness, as they try desperately to survive and find an identity. We have a strong new voice, in our literary world. Move over Sherman Alexie, there is a new guy in town.
There There is a magnificent debut novel about the Native American community. Not the Native Americans of colonial American history, but the modern urban Native American. It is set in Oakland, California where, as in other parts of the country, ancestral land has been buried by pavement and real estate development. As Gertrude Stein wrote, “There is no there, there.” Each chapter is narrated by one of about a dozen characters. Orvil is a teenage boy secretly learning Indian dance from YouTube videos. Jacquie is a middle-aged recovering alcoholic whose grandchildren are being raised by her sister, Opal. Dene recently received a grant to film Native Americans’ personal stories. Edwin is an unemployed college graduate who spends hours in his bedroom, addicted to the internet. And so on. Every single person has felt the impact of poverty, addiction, or violence, and sometimes all three. There is a lot of heartbreak, and a tiny bit of hope.
The characters' narratives could get confusing, but tiny details begin to connect their stories in pleasing “aha moments.” Everyone is converging on the Great Oakland Powwow, some to help organize the event, others to discover their heritage. The Powwow leads some characters to connect with each other. But there are also some “missed connections” left for another time, because it soon becomes clear that something significant will happen at the Powwow that will have a lasting impact on the entire Native American community. It is somehow fitting that Tommy Orange leaves some of that impact unsaid, enabling the reader to imagine the possible futures for these people.
As the date of the celebration nears, unknown connections begin to emerge, weaving together tribal identities, childhood experiences, and generational knowledge. And an immense, inescapable tragedy begins to build like a stormcloud on the horizon.
Orange is a writer of power and lyricism; his “interlude” sections, which are essentially essays on the Native experience, are utterly compelling. But he loses points badly as the climax builds and the reader struggles to keep the characters separate. Few of them speak with distinct voices, and one must depend on touchstones – that’s the one with FAS; that’s the one who was adopted by a white couple; that’s the grandmother trying to raise three boys. The guessing game interferes with what should be total immersion in the final scenes.
It’s still a powerful read, and a promising debut for a unique literary voice.
Due back at the library tomorrow and I just can't.
Nice writing, but I am not blown away the way so many are. I'm sure it's me. If, in future, the Kindle edition goes on sale, I'll buy it (IF it's under $3.99) but I have fewer eyeblinks ahead than I'd need to cram this bad boy into my skull.
All stories converge in the final chapters and this is one of the very very few book to bring tears to my eyes. Very well written bringing the characters to life to the point where you care about them and hope things turn out good for them.
Highly highly recommened!
Orange manages to fit together a dozen characters with labyrinthine relationships, overlapping plots, intersecting geography, and decades of time in a taut sub-300 page first novel without missing a beat. The book moves swiftly and lightly through a great depth of complex motives and emotions. It could easily have collapsed under its own weight, but manages not only to move but to race. Hard to imagine where Orange will go from here, but I am excited to find out.
The story's structure recalled for me Canterbury Tales. We learn the stories of the many people making their own brand of pilgrimage to the Oakland Powwow, how and why they got there, and why it matters. I was pretty sure about 2/3 into the book how this was going to end, and for the most part I was right, but that did not diminish my pleasure or absorption in the story one bit. There is a moment where the story is playing out, right at the end, where someone thinks about whether an event is really occurring or whether it is essentially a performance art piece illustrating the fate of Native Americans. And the weird part is that the thing is really happening, and though sadly not performance art, it is a pretty solid and ghastly metaphor that would have made a perfect performance art piece if it hadn't happened.
There There is so many things. Its a well-crafted and complete story, but also a historical chronicle (and rebuke) of all things NDN since the Europeans showed up (the first section is intense!), a series of sharp character sketches, an urban anthropological study, and a primal scream. This is a great first novel. It would have been a great 37th novel too, but as it happens it is a first. I cannot wait to hear more from Orange but even if his next book was a literary Ishtar his claim to greatness on the basis of this book alone is pretty freaking unassailable.
I was particularly struck by Orange’s incredible ability to develop these complex characters and because there were so many of them I found myself taking notes of the role of each and as they would reappear I’d check my notes and add to them. At a certain point, the interconnection of the characters began to reveal itself.
At the final event, the Powwow in Oakland, we are actually left to draw our own conclusions. Hardly my favorite way to conclude a narrative, but the power of the ending cannot be denied. Highly recommended.
This is a good novel, but it is very heavy, so readers beware, be prepared. It is not a feel good book. It will take you places you might not want to go. The Native American Indian experience is explored with intuition and insight in such a way as to make the reader feel their pain, frustration, needs, loss, and hopes. The Indians suffer from the alcoholism, racism, unemployment and other ills that society brought to them.
There, There is about where there means. Where is there for them. For the Indian, the land was everywhere. The land was theirs. There were no boundaries; they lived where they found food and could provide shelter for themselves. The Indians love their heritage and try to preserve it with powwows held regularly. In this book, the powwow goes awry with a terrible and tragic event. The book leaves the reader with many thoughts that are unfulfilled. There are no solutions and no firm conclusions. Everything is up in the air as the reasons that poor choices were made are revealed and the consequences are explored.
Each of the characters had a flaw that changed their lives, each also suffered from deprivation of some kind, mistreatment of some kind, confusion and a knowledge that there were secrets in their lives that if revealed might hurt them even if they also set them free. The Native Americans were influenced by superstition, folk lore and the painful memories of what they had once had and lost when they were driven from their land. The book seemed to be about hopelessness, but then hope would appear on the horizon, only to be followed by despair and inevitable failure. There were some wasted lives, forgotten dreams, and nightmares that became real when circumstances merged to bring about catastrophe. Although they tried to rise above their problems, they were often driven back down by circumstances beyond their control.
The novel is well written, but it is hard to read because of its intensity. It is deep and dark. There are so many characters, it is often hard to follow and remember which one was experiencing the current trauma, but the overall effect of the story certainly makes the reader think about the plight of the Native American Indian and the injustices they were forced to endure. Death and disaster have unfairly followed them.
What does there, there mean in this novel? It is used in several instances with different meanings. I wondered what was really there, in the end, was there hope or hopelessness? Was there the place to which they wished they could return? Was it a nameless vast expanse where they could settle once again to practice their tribal customs and dance without the encroachments of modern society or did they wish to join the technological world we live in today?
Because this is the kind of book that a reader might want to reread or review certain parts, I believe a print book is better than the audio.
Tommy Orange introduces his novel with a prologue which outlines the Indian history. It starts with the first encounter with the coloniser and continues as a series of loss and suppression and ends in a group of people who have lost not only their land, but also their culture, identity and pride. The author himself is of Cheyenne and Arapaho decent, so he knows what he is writing about and he thus gives the Natives an authentic voice. Yes, it is an inconvenient truth he tells, but a truth worth reading and thinking about.
The title already is quite confusing, but Orange makes one of his characters give an explanation quoting Gertrude Stein who
(...) was talking about how the place where she’d grown up in Oakland had changed so much, that so much development had happened there, that the there of her childhood, the there there, was gone, there was no there there anymore (...) The quote is important to Dene. This there there. (...) for Native people in this country, all over the Americas, it’s been developed over, buried ancestral land, glass and concrete and wire and steel, unreturnable covered memory. There is no there there.
The Natives have lost much more than their land. And up to today they have been treated differently. A lot of things that happen to the characters in the novel – getting pregnant at a very young age, being addicted to alcohol etc. – also happen to people from other ethnic backgrounds, however, they then are considered the odd uncle or the eccentric aunt and the like. Looking at the Native community, those things are regarded as the normal case, it is not something that anybody would wonder about. They always live at the fringe of society, even if they complete school and get a degree, they will have to perform much better than a white competitor to get a job.
The most striking aspect of the novel for me was the trouble that all the characters experience. On the one hand, they are forced to hide their culture and traditions because they do not belong to the mainstream culture, on the other hand, this leads to a certain loss which is felt but difficult to express. They sense that they are missing something, that they need explanations which nobody will give them. Their identity is never really complete which consequently ends in serious disturbances.
Tommy Orange is a remarkable writer who gives his fellow Natives an important voice that absolutely should be heard. Certainly, he doesn’t shrink from accusing what the colonisers and the white ruling classes have done to the indigenous population, however, he provides insight in what this actually meant and thus opens ways for a hopefully better future. This will not be an easy way, but one that has to be walked together.
Children born with fetal alcohol syndrome, children born to children, children born to parents that leave a day later, children left to care for younger children, you know this isn’t going to end well. You can feel a quiet desperation, you hope you are wrong. You rave and sputter for a nation that has been so wrongly diminished, almost destroyed. You know the history; maybe you have travelled and seen the consequences first hand. You can’t begin to empathize, you have no basis. You can only weep.
This book is so well written, so very different, made me angry, and made me sad, left a deep hollow in my soul, it broke my heart.
There's a lot packed into this relatively slender novel. Orange has things to say and he will say them. Often when an author is angry or has a purpose behind his writing, it diminishes the writing, but this forcefulness works well with this novel of urban Indians navigating a world that has disadvantaged them without care or understanding. There are a lot of separate voices, but they sort themselves out as the book progresses. This is a remarkable achievement and I look forward to being broadsided by Tommy Orange again with whatever he writes next.
Some of the writing is great. You get into the heads of the characters and their worldviews. But there are also choppy sentences, often missing commas. Sometimes, the portrait sketches seem to be pasted together writing assignments, not necessarily part of a coherent novel. And too often, the characters' internal monologues blend into each other; probable inevitable for a first-person perspective novel with so many characters.
Despite the quality of the writing, this wasn't the easiest read. The characters are awful, almost uniformly, not enjoyable to be with. Generally they are drug users, alcoholics, abusers, criminals—and the worst of it is that instead of owning it they all blame others (based entirely on race) and see themselves as victims of the system. The closest they get to taking responsibility is when one blames his white blood for his problems. One character learns programming for free on the Internet, yet simultaneously blames the white system for making him sell guns to rob other Indians with, and then uses the money, which he supposedly desperately needs, to buy drones and VR toys. The suffusing sense of victimhood is suffocating.