20 Books of Summer 2020: Book 8
Tommy Orange’s There There is a phenomenal book that follows 12 Native Americans in the lead up to a powwow. Its brilliant prologue allows Orange to relay historical context and social commentary to the reader before he writes about 12 individuals who subtly, and in varying ways, embody the points from his prologue. Orange does the heavy-lifting of educating a reader before the story, instead of awkwardly stuffing his words into his characters’ mouths. In the prologue, Orange writes about the way Native people are so often depicted as disembodied heads—as a test pattern on televisions, on coins, as mascots:
We’ve been defined by everyone else and continue to be slandered despite easy-to-look-up-on-the-internet facts about the realities of our histories and current state as a people. . . . All the way from the top of Canada, the top of Alaska, down to the bottom of South America, Indians were removed, then reduced to a feathered image. Our heads are on flags, jerseys, and coins. Our heads were on the penny first, of course, the Indian cent, and then on the buffalo nickel, both before we could even vote as a people—which, like the truth of what happened in history all over the world, and like all that spilled blood from slaughter, are now out of circulation. (7)
This lands when set alongside a historical overview and depictions of genocide. Another writer might have snuck this note on history and decapitation into the mouth of an art or literature professor. (I have a theory that when an author details a teacher’s lesson, they’re trying to educate the reader, not the characters.) I understand, I really do—if there’s a point a writer wants to make, how can they resist writing it so bluntly that a reader won’t misunderstand or read over it? But non-fiction and fiction have different demands for tone, flow, and mood. Orange has split the difference—serious history in the prologue, and subtle character work in the rest of the book. His characters live their lives and speak how they do without feeling the sudden need to talk about a TV test pattern from the 1970s in which a Native American’s head is center-screen surrounded by circles and lines as though: “The Indian’s head was just above the bulls-eye, like all you’d need to do was nod up in agreement to set the sights on the target. This was just a test.” (3)
Because the prologue is violent and the first chapter outlines a plan to rob the powwow, there’s a dark tone over everything, even while some characters are excited about the powwow. Their voices differ enough that they’re easy to tell apart; plus, each has a small supporting cast and characters soon overlap across chapters. Most of the chapters are very short, almost snapshots or “a day in the life,” which also keeps the voices distinct. One is in second person, which rarely works for me, but these sections are shorter than others. The shifts between first, second, and third person with another switch for an interlude that matches the prologue’s style actually work. Strangely, as I look back I couldn’t tell you which characters spoke in first person and which did not because it all felt so seamless.
I really enjoyed how each character was connected with the powwow in some way—an emcee, an attendee, etc.—because it helped one story coalesce from all the voices. Stories like this need a focal point because books with too many characters bloat easily and I can’t be the only person who’s bad with names. Also, with so many characters contemplating their identity, it would have been easy for their voices to feel disconnected, like mini essays, because their struggles are ultimately internal and personal. The powwow pushes everyone to action and keeps them in the real world. They learn to dance, contact potential family members, confront people from their past, escape bad situations, and—tragically—several people purchase guns.
My edition has a short Q&A with the author and one question jumped out at me—about why the cultural references in the book span time, geography, and class so widely:
“I wanted to write characters who are as contemporary as possible. So much of what is written about Native Americans is in historical, or stereotypical, terms. So I very much wanted to write modern Native characters who transcend and transgress what has been written by Natives and non-Natives who fail to represent Native people as living now, as relevant.” (300)
Other than a couple books by Sherman Alexie, I don’t think I’ve read anything else where Native Americans aren’t firmly set in the past. And in historical fiction, they rarely exist in their own right—they exist for the hero to conquer, or to teach the hero about living simply with the Earth. There There might be worth reading for this reason alone, but it’s also well-crafted and difficult to put down.
This book has one weak spot, though. For all the violent imagery in the prologue and interlude, Orange isn’t great at depicting violence in real time. When the powwow begins, chapters flick past quickly—some are barely more than a page—to tell the reader where everyone is and what they are doing when the armed robbery occurs. But the climax is confusing even though I had no trouble visualizing things. It’s not confusing because it’s chaotic, it’s confusing because something seems to be missing. I read it twice because I thought I’d accidentally skipped a chapter. The carefully woven and suspended narrative cracks at a key moment.
Overall: 4.8 (out of 5.0) By putting two sharp essays at the beginning and middle of his fictional book, Tommy Orange has found the perfect way to add real history without putting characters in contrived situations or shoehorning lessons into their speeches. Somehow, the end result is more direct and more subtle. More books should be structured this way. Plenty of old books have a spoiler-laden Foreword to make sure the reader has a relevant grasp of history; why can’t authors write their own non-spoiler intros?
- 4:50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie
- After Dark by Haruki Murakami
- The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak
- Circe by Madeline Miller
- I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid
- The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
- Less by Andrew Sean Greer
Books read, reviews coming soon
- Florida by Lauren Groff
- The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
- The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier
- The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski
- The Neverending Story by Michael Ende
- The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
- Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann
Reading in progress
- The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
- Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
- Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
- The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
- Normal People by Sally Rooney
- Ship Fever by Andrea Barrett
- The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen