First, huge trigger warning, especially right now, as we go through the aftermath of yet ANOTHER SHOOTING at what we should expect to be a peaceful gathering – this novel crescendos towards a shooting at a Powwow in Oakland, CA. The events that precede the shooting are the main thrust of the novel, and the final section contains descriptions of the event itself and brief content about its aftermath. I’d say maybe it isn’t for right now but honestly, when are we not reeling from another mass shooting in the US? You can’t go to school, or the mall, or a parade, or gather in a place of worship, without fear of shooting. You can get a gun, many guns, many incredibly deadly guns that are not for self protection but for murdering something WITH A HEARTBEAT, despite a documented history of threats and actual violence towards other people. But me and others like me with a uterus can’t make a decision about whether to protect our lives and continue a pregnancy because someone else believes that the cells inside of my uterus matter more than the cells that already comprise me. THIS IS A TANGENT BUT I AM SO PISSED OFF.
Anyway, this book is about a shooting, and that’s important to know before you read it.
Aside from that big content warning, you should also know that this book is just as good as everyone says it is. While you might associate the quote “there is no there there” with Hilary Clinton these days, it’s actually a reference to a Gertrude Stein quote about the author’s native Oakland and the manner in which has changed over time. Told through multiple perspectives, some in third person and others in first person, we dive into the lives of various people with different degrees of connection to their Native background. Some were raised with very Indian families, and others were hardly even aware of their own cultural background at all. The prologue of the book explores the tropes of Indians (or Native people) in popular literature – the either/or of Native people either being a complete relic of the past or just non-existent in today’s culture. He wants to explore the Urban Indian – someone living in today’s culture, in today’s cities, very much a part of the fabric of our society, but who also has a complicated history with the way in which the US stole the space that we call our own. It’s not easy to make sense of this legacy for anyone – and it’s so important to hear the voices of ancestors people who were not just left behind but forced into inhumane conditions.
Through the multiple narrators, whose stories all coalesce around the big Oakland Powwow, the author tells a multigenerational tale about many different lives, impacted by abuse and tragedy, many families attempting to remain together despite their circumstances. Dene Oxedene is a storyteller who wants to carry on the legacy of his uncle, who passed away from complications of alcoholism. Tony Loneman is a young man born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome – a condition that makes it difficult for him to control his explosive anger, and difficult to parse the expectations of others around him. Jacquie Red Feather is newly sober and wanting to reconnect with the family she lost touch with, despite her shame about the manner in which she left. Edwin Black is unsure of how to launch his life, but he believes he found his birth father and wants to engineer a meeting at The Big Powwow. These, and so many other characters, will capture your heart. Despite it’s large cast, this novel finds a way to endear each character to the reader.
It’s a sweeping tale told with restraint. There are so many ideas for the reader to extract from the language here, but Tommy Orange isn’t beating you over the head with a message. It’s a beautiful tribute to the way that we try to keep culture alive over generations when so much of the outside world wants to step in to arrest that process. Yes, I’m still quite pissed off about the state of the world in general – but I won’t take it out on my rating of this book. It’s a great novel, and well worth your time.