|Publisher||Alfred A. Knopf|
|June 5, 2018|
There There is the first novel by Cheyenne and Arapaho author Tommy Orange. Published in 2018, it opens with an essay by Orange as a prologue, and then proceeds to follow a large cast of Native Americans living in the area of Oakland, California, as they struggle with a wide array of challenges ranging from depression and alcoholism, to unemployment, fetal alcohol syndrome, and the challenges of living with an ethnic identity of being “ambiguously nonwhite.” All coalesce at a community pow wow, where a plot is underway to commit violence.
The book explores the themes of native peoples living in urban spaces, and issues of ambivalence and complexity related to natives’ struggles with identity and authenticity. There There was favorably received, and was the subject of a number of positive reviews.
The book begins with an essay by Orange, detailing “brief and jarring vignettes revealing the violence and genocide that indigenous people have endured, and how it has been sanitized over the centuries.”
As it continues into fiction, the novel alternates between second and third person perspectives, following 12 Native American characters in the area of Oakland, California. It examines one character, named Blue, with “heartbreaking empathy” as she reaches the decision to remain with her abusive partner. Another, Thomas, who is an alcoholic and has lost his job working as a janitor, wrestles with a life lived suspended between his mother, who is white and his “one-thousand-percent Indian” father who is a medicine man. Orange writes:
You’re from a people who took and took and took and took. And from a people taken. You’re both and neither. In the bath, you’d stare at your brown arms against your white legs in the water and wonder what they were doing together on the same body, in the same bathtub.
Similar conflict continues variously throughout the novel’s characters. A teenager, Orvil Red Feather, turns to Google in a search to answer “What does it mean to be a real Indian,” and in the mirror, wearing tribal regalia pulled from a closet, sees only “a fake, a copy, a boy playing dress-up”. Calvin Johnson confronts his guilt at claiming to be native at all, admitting “Mostly I just feel like I’m from Oakland.” Tony Loneman grapples with the fetal alcohol syndrome left him by his alcoholic mother, while Octavio Gomez remembers alcohol through the drunk driving accident that claimed his family, and Jacquie Red Feather faces sobriety from the perspective of a substance abuse counselor in the wake of her teenage daughter’s suicide. One struggles with his place in society as “ambiguously nonwhite”, while another “overweight and constipated, has a graduate degree in Native American literature but no job prospects — a living symbol of the moribund plight of Indian culture in the United States.”
All eventually coalesce around a pow wow taking place at the Oakland–Alameda County Coliseum, where some have smuggled in 3D printed handguns, in a plan to rob the event to repay drug debts.