Book review: ‘There There’ by Tommy Orange


“There There” is a novel about Indian (Native American, indigenous — ?) identity. (I’ll use Indian, but I could use several other terms.) How do Indians fit into the present society, especially urban Indians?

The novel introduces us to several Indians who are making their way to the Big Oakland Pow Wow. They are different ages, come from different areas, and have different experiences and different reasons for attending.

Because of their difficult lifeexperiences, the book has more than the average amount of street talk. For all of them, life has been, and continues to be, difficult. Much of the difficulty centers on what one character calls the special relationship of the Indian and alcohol. He refers to the ever-present problem of addiction. Several of the characters are fighting this addiction and others.

Tony Loneman suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome as a result of his mother’s addiction. It has made his face very difficult to look at, even for him. Dene Oxedene aspires to make movies despite the odds. Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield is still getting over the experiences she had as a child with the Indians who had taken over Alcatraz. Edwin Black is a well-educated young man who is fighting a weight problem primarily by an addiction to the computer and computer games.

Bill Davis is already at the site of the Pow Wow, the Oakland Coliseum. He has held many positions there, but now he is in maintenance, a suitable job for someone his age. Calvin Johnson has bragged about the $50,000 cash that would be at the Pow Wow and that has led to a great deal of interest by his friends. Jacquie Red Feather is a substance abuse counselor and the sister of Opal Bear Shield, so she too had the Alcatraz experience. Blue is the daughter Jacquie had as a result of Alcatraz. Blue was given up for adoption. Orvil Red Feather is Opal’s grandson and has learned traditional dance from YouTube. He intends to participate in the competition.

All the characters have at least some Indianblood. Some know a lot about their history; some not so much. Some have a tribe affiliation; some not. All find it difficult to rationalize their urban existence with purported Indian beliefs. The Pow Wow is their chance to gather with others, to share Indian traditions and to win some money.

Unfortunately, the large amount of cash complicates the competition. “There There” presents a stark picture of the continuing challenge the Indian population faces as it tries to maintain a cultural identity in a society fraught with addiction, economic challenge and white values.

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