In his debut literary novel, Tommy Orange take the reader on a journey into the lives of urban Native Americans as they grapple with a legacy of addiction, abuse, and suicide, interspersed with the history of an entire people group. Readers will follow twelve different characters as they choose to attend the Big Oakland Powwow, each for their own reasons.
As she navigates the treacherous waters of new sobriety, Jacquie Red Feather is returning to the sister and grandchildren she left behind. Her sister, Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield is attending to see her nephew, Orvil, dance for the first time after he taught himself using YouTube videos. Blue, recently escaped from an abusive marriage and trying to start a new life, has become friends with Edwin Black, a reclusive, overweight geek who still lives with his mother, as they work with the Indian Center to put on the powwow. Dene Oxendene is dealing with the loss of his uncle, while trying to honor the other man's memory by recording the stories of his people in hopes of helping the younger generation connect with their past.
Meanwhile, there are a group of young men whose main goal is to rob the powwow. All of these characters and more will find their lives unexpectedly intertwined on a fateful day that will change all of them forever.
I'm not usually a big reader of literary fiction, so when I picked up There There as our latest book club choice, I wasn't entirely sure what to expect. It ended up being a pretty good read. I'm interested in Native American culture (other cultures in general, really), so in that respect, it was an eye-opening story. The author takes an unvarnished look at urban Native American life, which made it all the more interesting, because most of what I've previously read had to do with either Native American history or life on the reservation. This book shows what it's like for Natives in contemporary cities, while also intersecting with the issue of gun violence. The author uses the voices of a dozen different characters to tell his story. At first glance, these people all seem to be from different places and walks of life, but Mr. Orange masterfully weaves their individual narratives together into a cohesive whole in which many of their lives intersect in unexpected ways. And, of course, they're all drawn together by the common goal of attending the Oakland Powwow, each for their own reasons. As a writer myself, I was impressed with the way in which the author seamlessly floats between first, second (I've never read anything written in this style before), and third person, past and present narration styles. There's also a lot of metaphor and symbolism, much of which I'm sure I didn't pick up on. In fact, I only realized how much there was while we were having our book club discussion and other members brought up certain elements of the story that were symbolic, which I hadn't even thought about until that moment. So, overall, it was a well-written book that I enjoyed, just not one that quite made it to the place where I could say I loved it.
One of the reasons for that is that it became very difficult to keep all the characters straight. There were some whose narratives were more engaging and relatable for me. I was most drawn in by the three women, Opal, Jacquie, and Blue, along with the three young brothers, Orvil, Loother, and Lony. The women's stories all tie together, and perhaps as a woman myself, I simply gravitated toward them and sympathized with them and each of their individuals plights. There's a sadness, with each of them having dealt with issues such as alcoholism and domestic abuse, but perhaps also a certain hopefulness in them, as well. The three boys, despite engaging in a lot of teasing and arguing with one another, seemed to be a close-knit group, which was heartwarming to me. I also enjoyed Dene's narrative in which he's working on a storytelling project that he hopes to use to reconnect younger Natives with their shared history and culture. There's also Edwin, the self-conscious, overweight geek who still lives at home with his mom even though he's about thirty years old. Since I'm a geek married to a geek, I felt like I understood him in a way. Then there's a group of ne'er-do-wells, who are planning to rob the powwow. Even though I probably related the least to these guys, I do have to give the author props for trying to humanize each of them to make them and their actions more understandable.
My biggest criticism of the story is in the author's use of 3-D printed plastic guns. I feel that he took fairly extreme creative license with this, because 3-D printed guns haven't reached the level of functionality that was being portrayed. I know this because my husband is a 3-D printing enthusiast who has also done a great deal of research on guns of both the traditional and printed variety. 3-D printed guns can't really fire off a lot of shots in close proximity, because they don't have magazines like traditional semi-automatics, and even if a person was able to reload several times, the heat of multiple bullets being expelled from the chamber in close succession would eventually overheat the plastic muzzle, most likely causing it to explode. Also the author only addresses the issue of getting the bullets past metal detectors, but even the most basic 3-D printed guns still need a metal firing pin, which is never mentioned. So, if you're not aware of these things going into reading it or are less of a stickler for factual inaccuracies than I am, then this probably won't be as much of an issue, but it did raise a flag for me.
If you're a fan of literary fiction who enjoys parsing hidden meanings, then I'm sure There There will most likely be a big hit for you. I'm not one of those people, so the book probably didn't resonate with me in the same way it will for others. I'm sure there's a lot of food for thought within its pages, but I just happen to be more of a tell it like it is kind of reader. I also was rather frustrated by the ambiguous nature of the ending. There are many lives hanging in the balance, not all of whose outcomes are told or even hinted at. Our book club members managed to extrapolate some of their fates, but without their help, I would still be in the dark with some and still am with others. There were also unanswered questions with regards to other aspects of the story, such as whether familial connections were made between certain characters. I've never been a fan of ambiguity in my book endings. Good or bad, I just want to author to tell me what happens. I will say that despite being rather gruesome at times, I did like the prologue and interlude, both of which offer more perspective on the Native American experience and will probably teach readers things they may not already know. So bottom line, There There should resonate with frequent readers of literary fiction. As for me, it may not make it to the top of my list of favorites, but it was a good read that I generally enjoyed and would recommend to anyone wanting to learn more about Native American culture.
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