Tommy Orange’s debut novel “There There” tells the heartbreaking stories of 12 individuals who all find themselves at an Oakland, California, powwow for vastly different reasons. The book is a beautiful blend of blunt historical honesty and fast-paced narratives that manage to grapple with a perspective many people have not yet considered.
The format of the book is jumpy in a fervent and simplistic way. It switches points of view in no particular order, creating a sense of corrosive urgency that is both stressful and addicting. Orange’s simplistic descriptors and colloquial tone creates an overall voice that is like the false calm before a destructive storm.
The book begins and ends with the perspective of Tony Loneman, who suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome and lives with his grandmother Maxine in an Oakland neighborhood. He is tough and hardened from a life of cruel stares and unwarranted pity. He deals drugs on the street corner, gets in fights and hangs out with thugs — most of whom are also centerpieces of the story as the book goes on.
As the narrative continues, we see the perspective of young Orvil Red Feather who taught himself Native dancing on YouTube. In a nervous desperation to connect with his fractured culture, he auditions to dance at the powwow.
We also see the lives of his estranged mother, Jacquie Red Feather, who struggles with alcoholism and is newly sober; Edwin Black, a 40-something-year-old man with a degree in Native American literature who still lives with his mother and Octavio Gomez, who, after his family died when he was a young teenager, turned to a life of drug dealing and organized crime. These and many more intertwined perspectives all create a collage that highlights the dire, yet resilient story of a culture attempting to bring itself back from the edge.
The book reaches its heartbreaking climax at the big Oakland powwow, where an attempt at robbery turns into a violent shooting. All the characters that were so easy to empathize with and grow attached to are cruelly confronted with a stark violence that cuts the reader to the bone.
The beauty of the novel is that characters are not mirrored personifications of problems seen in real life — they are human characters who struggle with their problems in a way that is both relatable and eye-opening.
Morbid alcoholism, drug addiction, cultural decay and much more are all visited within the pages of “There There.” With a blunt and unabashed way of writing, Orange creates a storyline in which one cannot help but feel for the characters as they continue on a path to a tragedy that only the reader is fully aware of.
“There There” is a book of heartbreak and rugged survival; it is not a book that will put a smile on the reader’s face or a sense of hope in their heart. It is the nitty gritty story of individuals whose entire culture was nearly obliterated and their feigned attempts at bringing it back from the dead. It is an eye-opening novel that wrenches the heart into a place of empathy, not just for the fictional characters but for the very real culture they so masterfully represent.