This novel ended up on my to-read list last year after it was a Cannonball featured review. I can definitely understand why so many have spoken so highly of it, and am sure this won’t be the last we hear of Tommy Orange in the years to come.
While presented as one complete novel of converging stories, There There reads almost like a collection of short stories, with different threads connecting each of the characters: that is, until everything comes to a head at the end of the story. Starting with a historical essay from Orange explaining “brief and jarring vignettes revealing the violence and genocide that Indigenous people have endured, and how it has been sanitized over the centuries,” we are presented with context and generational history of the lives of the characters we are about to meet; although fictional, it draws from reality. The novel then invites the reader to experience little snippets of the lives of 12 different Native Americans living in the Oakland area, and all headed towards a big Oakland Powwow for one reason or another. Although they are different ages and living different lives, each character in this expansive story somehow connects to another in a sense of meeting one another or relation to one another. I will be honest that I sometimes had a little trouble remembering which character was which and how each one related to another while listening (I picked this one up as an audiobook) but it wasn’t such a deterrent that it caused me any big issues in understanding what was going on.
These stories also all connect to one another in the themes present, all centered on the experience of what it means to be an “Urban Native American”. As you can imagine, it can be quite bleak at times –and in fact most of the time– but that doesn’t stop this novel from also giving moments of hope, spirituality, and healing.
Something that I know others have mentioned when reviewing this book is the abrupt ending, and I have to agree that it does feel quite sudden. So much of this novel is a slow build-up, and it even hints many times about what is to occur at the Oakland Powwow, so you would expect there to be just a little more gleaned from this explosive climax before the conclusion. Everything led us here, but what now? I guess that is really the question for any of these characters: where do we go from here? How do we keep moving forward in a world that doesn’t want us to?
Ultimately, I think There There is certainly an ambitious debut novel, and a successful one at that. It feels honest and true, and provides a strong marginalized voice in a modern (and needed) context.