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Book review: ‘There, There’

November 22, 2019 by Abigail Bostwick

A striking and moving first novel, “There, There: A Novel” by Native American author Tommy Orange is an extraordinary story of 12 unforgettable characters. They are “Urban Indians,” all living in Oakland, Calif., and converge on one, fateful day. 

Orange’s debut novel quickly took the reading world by storm — considered ground-breaking and “destined to become a classic,” “There, There” has a powerful voice and takes a strong look into the modern life of the Native American today. 

It’s the Big Oakland Pow Wow, and the 12 characters are each attending the event for their own reasons and motivations. They all have different and varying feelings on the day. Some are fearful, others are joyful and excited. Some are violent and angry. The pow wow will be a glorious communion for all attendees, display a spectacle of sacred tradition and pageantry, and convey sacrifice, heroism and loss.

At the forefront is Jacquie Red Feather. She is newly sober and working on making it back to the family she left behind in shame with her addictions. Also present is Dene Oxendene, who is doing all he can to put his life back on track after the death of his uncle and make sure his memory is honored. Meanwhile, Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield has come to watch her nephew Orvil, who has taught himself traditional Indian dance through YouTube videos and is about to make his first public debut. All the stories examine love, beauty, spirituality, abuse, addiction and tragic death. There is rich history — from the great love of the Native Americans to the history of genocide and dislocation from their homes.

Tension and momentum builds as the day unfolds, towards a startling yet inevitable conclusion in the ending chapters. The story changes for every single character. 

Despite the heavy emotional load of the novel, it is still suspenseful, funny, complex and fierce. The narrative is different and strong, and while 12 stories may seem like a lot to follow, they all flow together beautifully and melodically. Orange’s voice is truly one that has never been heard. 

“There, There,” a New York Times bestseller, has taken several honors in its time on the shelves: One of the Best Books of the Year: The Washington Post, NPR, Time, O, The Oprah Magazine, San Francisco Chronicle, Entertainment Weekly, The Boston Globe, GQ, The Dallas Morning News, Buzzfeed, BookPage, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews.   

“Our heads are on flags, jerseys, and coins. Our heads were on the penny first, of course, the Indian cent, and then on the buffalo nickel, both before we could even vote as a people — which, like the truth of what happened in history all over the world, and like all that spilled blood from slaughter, are now out of circulation.” 

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