Tommy Orange’s debut There There is one of the most lauded books of 2018 and for good reason. Orange, a creative writing teacher at the Institute of American Indian Arts, opens this novel with an essay on Native American culture that is fresh, innovative, and sets up the modern context for the world we are to inhabit throughout the book. Mr. Orange gives us a frame to think of Native American culture as urban (by way of necessity) and as one shaped by disenfranchisement and rotten policies that have stripped indigenous Americans of so much.
The novel, set in Oakland California, weaves together twelve narrative stories all by different narrators in different tones and registers. This chorus of voices all depict various corners of the struggles and wonders of twenty first century Native American life. Orange cited Erdrich and Denis Johnson in an recent interview as influences, and it is easy to see how the collections like The Red Convertible and Jesus’ Son from those writers have influenced this novel of interconnected stories, essay, polemics, and ideas.
All coalesces at the big Oakland Powwow and the end is tremendous and powerful. With that said, this is not an easy book to read in terms of subject matter. The history and weight of centuries of subjugation cast long shadows on each of these unforgettable characters as they try to figure out the answer to the question a 4 year old in the book innocently asks his grandmother, “What are we? What are we?” Orange with tremendous love and intelligence works shows us the answer to that question.
An incredible and heart-wrenching book. Recommended for readers of contemporary fiction who like a historical and social weight and importance in their books. Readers of Howard Zinn, Louise Erdrich, Roberto Bolano, and Leslie Marmon Silko will devour Orange and welcome him into that fold.
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