Wednesday, September 19, 2018
Books

Review: Tommy Orange’s ‘There There’ a powerful portrait of urban Indian life

Every American is a child of immigrants.

The only difference is how long ago your forebears came here from another land, by sail or steam, on foot or by jet engine, by choice or by enslavement.

The clear winners of that contest, of course, are Native Americans, whose ancestors arrived 14,000 years, give or take, ahead of everyone else’s, millennia before the founding of the nation we celebrate in a few days.

Leave aside the bitter irony of descendants of those first people on the continent being attacked now as "invaders" by someone whose family got here, historically speaking, last Tuesday.

There are plenty more ironies, much bitterness and some sweetness to be found in Tommy Orange’s stunner of a debut novel, There There.

Orange is a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes on his father’s side, white on his mother’s, born and raised in Oakland, Calif. Several characters in There There share similar backgrounds, and all are what Orange calls "urban Indians."

The novel opens with a virtuosic meditation on the old Indian Head test pattern that used to appear on TV screens when TV wasn’t a 24-hour presence (technology’s impact being a recurring theme of the book), a meditation that becomes a searing summary of the history of native peoples since the European incursion.

That leads us to the urban Indian: "Getting us to cities was supposed to be the final, necessary step in our assimilation, absorption, erasure, the completion of a five-hundred-year-old genocidal campaign."

It hasn’t worked. "We know the sound of the freeway better than we do rivers, the howl of distant trains better than wolf howls."

But for Orange’s urban Indians, identity is a constant question. As one of them thinks, "You’re from a people who took and took and took and took. And from a people taken. You were both and neither."

The novel is built around a chorus of different voices, each of them struggling with loss and isolation yet moving, sometimes unknowingly, toward connection with one another.

One teenager, Orvil Red Feather, recounts a day in his childhood when he called for help when his mother overdosed on drugs. "It was the first time I heard that we were Indian," he says, from a social worker.

He’s being raised by his great-aunt, Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, who’s estranged from his grandmother, Jacquie Red Feather. In their Oakland childhood, "home for Jacquie and her sister was a locked station wagon in an empty parking lot." Then their mother takes them to the Native American occupation of Alcatraz in 1969-71, where many threads of the novel’s plot begin.

In the present, we meet Edwin Black, a video gaming addict with a master’s in comp lit and "tons of Native friends" on Facebook. He doesn’t even know his father’s tribe, much less his father. When he gets a job planning a powwow at the Oakland Coliseum, he meets Blue, a Native woman adopted and raised by a white family but also looking for her past.

Meanwhile, a group of young Indian men caught up in drug dealing — the scourge of substance abuse is a dark thread through the narrative — have plans for that powwow as well, plans that involve handguns made on a 3D printer of white plastic, guns that look like innocent children’s toys but are not.

The complexities of his many characters’ lives merge into a single channel that races toward the powwow and an explosive, heartbreaking finale. Orange gives eloquent voice to Americans too often voiceless.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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