As I get older and probably more jaded, I often find myself drawn to general fiction that shows a different cultural perspective, enjoying the learning and stimulation of a different way of seeing the world. This led me to Tommy Orange’s terrific debut THERE, THERE, which I found a beautiful piece of fiction about the urban Native-American experience.
The novel is a bestseller and won all sorts of awards, but I put all that aside in my expectations and started with page one. Pretty soon, I couldn’t put it down. In THERE, THERE, Orange produces a history, point of view, and slice of life for twelve Native-Americans living in Oakland and all headed to the same pow wow ceremony, all connected in some way whether they realize it or not.
The language is powerful and puts you right in the brain of each character, while providing perspectives that place you directly in the Native-American experience. That’s pretty much the good part of my review, but it’s everything. You enjoy, you learn, you empathize, you root for, you understand someone previously alien to you. That’s great fiction. Thematically, for me, there is a strong tone of reclaiming spirit but screwing it up along the way because of problems far bigger than individuals, a theme that’s universal.
On the downside for some readers, there are a lot of characters, not only the twelve principals but their own networks, so you might find yourself skipping back to Orange’s dramatis personnae at the beginning of the book to keep track. While each character brings something new to the mix, the overall tone is fairly monotone across them all with a simmering despair, a feeling like no matter what you do, you can’t win, no matter what you achieve, something big was already taken from you that you’ll never get back. A hunger for something that can’t be satisfied.
Another downside for some readers is this is, well, a work of literary fiction. The story is far more about who these people are, where they came from, what they want to be, and where they’re going far more than this or that happens. You either appreciate the form of you don’t. Honestly, there are many times I don’t, but I found the characters and author compelling enough to love it.
The story all comes to a head at the Big Oakland Pow Wow, and while it ties the characters together, there isn’t much of a denouement where they learn or change, which would be my own personal singular criticism. It left me feeling satisfied with the journey but also a little wanting at the destination, though maybe that was the point.
Overall, I really enjoyed this story and look forward to more from Orange.