There There by Tommy Orange
Published by Knopf on June 5, 2018
my rating: ★★★
Goodreads avg: 3.99 (as of 2019-11-16)
We all came to the powwow for different reasons. The messy, dangling threads of our lives got pulled into a braid–tied to the back of everything we’d been doing all along to get us here. There will be death and playing dead, there will be screams and unbearable silences, forever-silences, and a kind of time-travel, at the moment the gunshots start, when we look around and see ourselves as we are, in our regalia, and something in our blood will recoil then boil hot enough to burn through time and place and memory. We’ll go back to where we came from, when we were people running from bullets at the end of that old world. The tragedy of it all will be unspeakable, that we’ve been fighting for decades to be recognized as a present-tense people, modern and relevant, only to die in the grass wearing feathers.
Tommy Orange springs forth with a marvelous debut novel that falls just a bit short of its potential. There’s a lot here that works, but also some that doesn’t. It’s weakness to me was the breadth of characters. Perhaps this is a personal shortcoming of mine: I struggle with books that host a large cast of characters. I feel it’s difficult to balance so many personalities while also keeping them all memorable and fully-formed. While Orange succeeds at the latter, I found the constant switches in perspective complicated and was always a step behind in remembering each character’s earlier chapter.
There were some bits I really loved: the nonfiction interludes were fascinating and eye-opening to me as someone who really knows minimal information about the history of Native Americans. It made me want to go out and grab some full-length nonfiction books in order to supplement my knowledge — which I plan to do now. It also brought me awareness of urban American Indians, which I had known little to nothing about previously. The way the characters’ lives overlapped, whether a little or a lot, was interesting to see as well. Sometimes it was played more subtly than others, and I think with fewer characters to follow it would have had a much larger impact on me.
And don’t make the mistake of calling us resilient. To not have been destroyed, to not have given up, to have survived, is no badge of honor. Would you call an attempted murder victim resilient?
The way Orange directed the tone of the story was also interesting. I started off having truly no idea where things would be going. The tension picks up so slowly that once you realize it’s there, you have to wonder when it started. By the end of the book I was bracing myself for an impact that I knew would come — I just didn’t know when, or how it would resolve. I do have mixed feelings on the ending, which I felt was somewhat abrupt, but I’m not sure I have an alternate to propose.
TL;DR: While this book was highly commendable in many ways, the number of POVs just didn’t work for me.