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Tommy Orange’s ‘There There’ is a Powerful Exploration of Identity and Culture

5 Stars

By Bobae C. Johnson, Crimson Staff Writer

Debut novelist Tommy Orange explores the lives of a dozen different Native Americans living in modern-day urban cities in “There There.” Each character is somehow linked to the others, and, as the novel progresses, each person finds himself or herself at the Oakland powwow, where their paths intersect. Orange masterfully debuts a shockingly powerful story, expertly creating and weaving together characters while exploring the depths of indigenous culture with unrelenting honesty and poignancy.

Orange employs an uncommon style in his prose: A recent graduate of the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts, he clearly finds inspiration in sources outside the overwhelmingly white canon of authors taught and discussed in America. He switches between first and third person, depending on the character whose identity he assumes, and even writes one chapter in second person, creating a powerfully charged atmosphere. Furthermore, “There There” has no discernible beginning, middle, or end. The book shows the lives of twelve people for a certain period of time, and, at the end, discontinues the storyline. Orange is unafraid to break the conventional “rules” of the American novel and he does so with such mastery that strong emotional attachment to the characters is effortlessly established throughout the plot.

Orange also uses conciseness to his advantage. With twelve main characters and their individual histories to explore, Orange uses his words sparingly to buoy the emotional investment the reader has in each distinct character. Orange explores Octavio Gomez’s loss of his father in a single paragraph: “They rolled up on our house and emptied their guns into it, into the life we’d known, the life our mom and dad spent years making from scratch. My dad was the only one to get hit. My mom was in the bathroom, and Junior was in his room at the back of the house. My dad put himself in front of me, blocked the bullets with his body.” In just four sentences, Orange brings Octavio’s feelings to life. The reader is unceremoniously dumped into the characters’ lives, feeling their emotions, successes, and afflictions. Though several characters only have one chapter devoted to them before the powwow, Orange’s dexterity as a writer quickly creates an emotional bond between reader and character.

In one chapter, the character Paul abuses his wife, Blue. Blue hides from Paul in a bathroom, hoping to catch a bus away from him to the powwow. “C’mon baby. Come out. Where are you going?" the text says. "My legs are tired. My knees throb from the crash. I get down from the toilet.” Orange’s prose does not sugarcoat—he explores Blue’s abuse with terrifying poignancy. It is easy, and terrifying, to feel fear alongside Blue as her husband stalks her.

The characters that Orange brings to life differ greatly from one another—though they all attend the powwow and many are blood relatives, their reasons for doing so vary drastically, from exploring one’s culture, to working a job, to meeting up with long-lost fathers, to planning to rob the event. Orange makes it clear that although they are all part of a unified history, their stories are diverse.

Orange’s debut novel breaks from the concept of the standard American story. He creates something even more poignant and affecting with the power to permanently change its reader.

—Staff writer Bobae C. Johnson can be reached at bobae.johnson@thecrimson.com.

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