There There by Tommy Orange
There There is a book that will stay with me for a long time. It’s getting a lot of critical acclaim and will likely be a much discussed book among readers this year. Here’s what I thought…There There by Tommy Orange
Published in 2018
Reviewed by: Jen
Rating: 5 stars
Find it/buy it here: There There
I started and ended my journey reading There There with tears in my eyes. Yes, it’s that good. In fact, it is currently my favorite book of the year and I’ll make a prediction that it will be a top contender for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize.
Astonishingly, There There is a debut novel. I say astonishingly because it usually takes time and experience to produce this quality of novel. The book tells the stories of twelve Native American characters from Oakland who are preparing to attend a Powwow. Each of the twelve characters has their own reasons and motivations for attending. For some it is a spiritual or personally significant event, for others it’s an opportunity for advancement, both positive and negative.
The book is broken into sections: a prologue, “Remain”, “Reclaim”, Interlude, “Return”, and Powwow. The prologue and interlude are non-fiction, pieces that provide both history and social commentary related to the experiences and lives of Native Americans. And these sections are powerful, emotionally effective, and they enhance the fictional parts of the book in no small part because they are intricately connected with the author’s own heritage.
But what we are is what our ancestors did. How they survived. We are the memories we don’t remember, which live in us, which we feel, which make us sing and dance and pray the way we do, feelings from memories that flare and bloom unexpectedly in our lives like blood through a blanket from a wound made by a bullet fired by a man shooting us in the back for our hair, for our heads, for our bounty, or just to get rid of us.
The fictional sections build up to the final Powwow where the 12 characters come together. Each chapter is told from the perspective of one of the 12 characters and as the book progresses, we see how the lives of all these characters are connected.
One of the things I loved about this book was that it was so fresh and gives readers a glimpse into the lives of Native Americans living in urban locations. This is not your traditional “life on the reservation” story, historical fiction, or Native folklore story (although stories do play a critical role in the book). Tommy Orange highlights the diversity of the Native American experience set in the context of a similar shared history. And he does so from a place of personal experience. The characters are complex, deeply flawed, and all immeasurably impacted by their history.
She shuffles her music and it lands on Smokey Robinson’s “The Tracks of My Tears.” This song gives her that strange mix of sad an happy. Plus it’s upbeat. That’s what she loves about Motown, the way it asks you to carry sadness and heartbreak but dance while doing so.
Many of the characters in this book carry around sadness and heartbreak while being required to metaphorically dance while doing so. Dance, music, and storytelling are also central to many of the characters as means through which to connect or reconnect to their own heritage.
You didn’t think of tapping or knocking as drumming until you actually started drumming many years later. It would have been good to know that you’d always done something naturally. But there was too much going on with everyone else in your family for anyone to notice you should probably have done something else with your fingers and toes than tap, with your mind and time than knock all the surfaces in your life like you were looking for a way in.
There There is a deeply emotional book. It has been described as a “new American epic” by the New York Times. It’s beautifully written and captures a multitude of very different voices. Some sections are poetic, others funny, others obscene and these voices match the varied characters. It’s a worthwhile read and one I wholeheartedly recommend. So do yourself a favorite and run out and pick up a copy.
You can buy your copy here: There There
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