A place to call home. Somewhere that’s familiar and comfortable. After a long day, you’d like nothing more than to travel to your spot of solace and lay your head. Yet, what if there was no such place for you? What if everywhere you went, nothing felt like home? What if there was no there, there?
Tommy Orange’s novel “There, There” holds you captivated without even trying. You’ll find that your journey feels very much like searching for a longed home; hesitantly optimistic, yet terribly distressing all in one go. Orange grabs you in the prologue as if to say, “Hey, didn’t you know this happened? This is reality!” And he paints it for you. Orange is a Native American who has created 12 different characters who struggle daily with their heritage. Although fictional, his book is peppered with historical facts and nuances that really get the brain twirling.
For the most part, the history of Native Americans as we know it has not been cheerful. The genocide of these people was brutal and full of sorrow and slaughter. “They did more than kill us. They tore us up. Mutilated us,” Orange writes in the prologue, while explaining an account of indigenous people. That doesn’t mean their traditions or their heritage should be ignored or considered irrelevant.
Quite the contrary, for these tribes and cultures shape the America we live in. But the treatment of them upon the arrival of foreigners has lasted until this day. Many Native Americans are still putting the pieces back together. But even after full on human butchering and attempted assimilation, Orange writes, “…we kept on, even when we saw the bullets send our bodies flying through the air like flags, like the many flags and buildings that went up in place of everything we knew this land to be before.”
From balancing tribe culture to “white culture,” to fighting rampant alcoholism caused from decades of torment to finding their individual self within a world that has condemned even the way they look, the Native Americans in Orange’s novel strive to feel authentic and content. It delves into characters who eventually come together inadvertently, after their own personal journeys, to attend a pow wow in Oakland, California. “We made pow wows because we needed a place to be together,” he writes.
In the first character of Orange’s book, we meet Tony Loneman. He was born with fetal alcohol syndrome, or as he refers to it, the Drome. While dealing with the attitudes of others, he tries to make money in the world he inhabits. Tony finds himself involved in some contentious situations.
Later we meet Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, a complicated old woman who struggles with the past. From running around with her sister and mother when she was younger and traveling to different places for reasons she didn’t yet understand, to being a grandmother for her sister’s children (“She’s not technically their grandma. Indian way she is … She is actually their great-aunt.”), Opal is a strong yet somewhat secretive person.
One of her grandsons, Orvil Red Feather, comes across some old regalia in Opal’s closet. He longs to understand his heritage, but Opal tries to explain: “It makes me happy you want to know, but learning about your heritage is a privilege. A privilege we don’t have. And anyway, anything you hear from me about your heritage does not make you more or less Indian. More or less real Indian.” Orvil does not yet understand or find solace in her words, but he discovers the art of dancing.
More characters cross our path. One wants to put together the stories of other Native Americans. One is seeking his biological father. As the plot unfolds, you realize one major theme for each person: the search for belonging; the search for there, there.
“In the dark times
Will there be singing?
Yes, there will be singing.
About the dark times.”
— Bertolt Brecht
Indigenous Peoples’ Day is Oct. 14.
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