When THERE THERE first came out, I picked it up, then put it down – picked it up a week later, put it down again. I struggled to identify with the Native American experience that was reported to be brutally described in this book. Then I asked myself – do we need to identify with the characters in a book to make the book worthwhile? Of course not. I was being a coward not to immerse myself in this book right at the start.
That said, better late than never. THERE THERE is a painful, if important read.
The title comes from a Gertrude Stein quote in which she refers to her childhood home of Oakland, California, as being so changed in her later life that it is no longer the city she once knew – i.e., there is no there there. Oakland is the setting for THERE THERE as well, but the author, Tommy Orange, speaks of the Native American experience on a larger scale, where memory of the old ways, of what it means to be a Native American, has been wiped out by modern life.
His solution? Telling stories about Native life so that it is never again forgotten. To this end, THERE THERE is comprised of stories within a story of individuals whose lives grow increasingly entwined as the plot unfolds. Orange’s prose is lyrical, perhaps too much so for some of his characters. But his plotting is careful and well planned, introducing one character after another, leading up to a climactic Powwow that is, in the end, riddled with bullets, realization, and reconciliation.
What does it mean to be an Indian? How does it feel to be an Indian? This, the author says, is his focus. And the novel is dark. It depicts the urban Native American who suffers without an anchor. The Native American’s past has been erased nearly as completely as his lands have been taken.
THERE THERE is powerful, tragic, but in odd ways hopeful.
One caveat? There are many characters to keep track of in THERE THERE, making the Audible listen a challenge for me. I suspect that this book is better read in print.