There There by Tommy Orange

there-thereWow. What a gutting and beautiful novel. It’s a book about twelve Native Americans whose lives converge (or don’t) at the Big Oakland Powwow. It’s a book about urban Indians (as the characters in the book often label themselves). It is a sprawling, moving, and vitally urgent book about the urban Native American experience, which, of course, means it is a book about the very different experiences of twelve very different Native people.

What Orange does here is kind of incredible: it’s a novel-in-stories, an interconnected web of people, a collection of moments and lives. They overlap and intersect and merge and blur. Orange’s characters, all Native people living (or having lived at one point) in Oakland, are connected to each other by blood, by marriage, by work, by passing moments, by mutual acquaintances, by love, by friendship, by anger. What’s remarkable is how deeply drawn every single one of these characters is. There are twelve characters in the book, and it’s not a long book, and I cared about every single character. I was invested in every single character. Their stories were compelling and specific. Their histories and desires, the big and little mistake they made, what they celebrated and struggled with–I am still in awe of the sheer amount of detail Orange poured into this short kaleidoscope of a novel.

There are common themes running through the whole book. Identity and displacement and where a person can put down their anger. How grief and trauma travel through generations. The ever-shifting boundaries of what makes a family. The blurring and erasure and memory and passing on of culture. The violent legacy of colonialism. The invisibility and hyper-visibility with which white America views Native people. The ways that small moments sometimes bloom into life-changing moments. Loneliness, aimlessness, placelessness. What it means to have a home. What it means not to have one.

In each character’s story, Orange explores all of these big themes in ways that are singular and specific. It’s a big, complicated book, at times heavy, at times heartbreaking, but it’s always driven by the characters. There is nothing general or vague about it. This is my absolute favorite kind of novel, and Orange weaves this one masterfully. There was so much emotion in it that at times it was hard to take it all in, and that’s what made it so vivid, and so impossible to put down.

But it was the writing that pushed this book, for me, into the realm of the extraordinary. What gorgeous, lyrical, sparse, elegant writing. It never felt overwritten, and, even more astounding, every voice that Orange uses, whether he’s in the POV of an old man or a teenage girl or a twenty-something, felt authentic, felt like that specific person thinking and talking and feeling. The writing was beautiful, but it was also familiar. It was the characters speaking, and that was powerful. There were so many lines that just gutted me, passages that took my breath away with the sheer beauty of their prose, their insight, their honesty. This was a book I drank down like cool river water.

There was more music in one page of this book than exists in all the pages of other books. Here’s an example of a passage that left me struggling to breathe:

“Before you were born, you were a head and a tail in a milky pool–a swimmer. You were a race, a dying off, a breaking through, an arrival. Before you were born, you were an egg in your mom who was an egg in her mom. Before you were born, you were the nested Russian grandmother doll of possibility in your mom’s ovaries. You were two halves of a thousand different kinds of possibilities, a million heads or tails, flip-shine on a spun coin. Before you were born, you were the idea to make it to California for gold or bust. You were white, you were brown, you were red, you were dust. You were hiding, you were seeking. Before you were born, you were chased, beaten, broken, trapped on a reservation in Oklahoma. Before you were born, you were an idea your mom got into her head in the seventies, to hitchhike across the country and become a dancer in New York. you were on your way when she did not make it acorss the country but sputtered and spiraled and wound up in Taos, New Mexico, at a peyote commune named Morning Star. Before you were born, you were your dad’s decision to move away form the reservation, up to northern New Mexico to learn about a Pueblo guy’s fireplace. You were the light in the wet of your parents eyes as they met acorss that fireplace in ceremony. Before you were born, your halves inside them moved to Oakland. Before you were born, before your body was much more than heart, spine, bone, brain, skin, blood, and vein, when you’d just stated to build muscle with movement, before you showed, bulged in her belly, as her belly, before your dad’s pride could belly-swell from the sight of you, your parents were in a room listening to hte sound your heart made. You had an arrhythmic heartbeat. The doctor said it was normal. Your arrhythmic heartbreak was not abnormal.”

The poetry of “flip-shine on a spun coin” still gives me shivers.

I read this book quickly, and if there was one thing I did not love about it, it was the ending, which felt simpler than the novel that preceded it. This is still one of the best books I’ve read this year, by far, one so expansive and intimate that I can’t wait to read it again. I’m looking forward to savoring it more slowly, and finding all the hidden bits I’m sure I missed the first time around.

 

 

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