There There: A Novel by Tommy Orange (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018. 300 pp)
Tommy Orange is a recent graduate from the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. He is a 2014 MacDowell Fellow and a 2016 Writing By Writers Fellow. An enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, he was born and raised in Oakland, California, and currently lives in Angels Camp, California.
Recently on a birthday expedition, my wife and I played tourist for a day and ventured to the Seattle waterfront. A changing city, the waterfront operates at the front edges of its own transformation, a tunnel underneath burrowing to replace the dangers of a viaduct highway. A future tourist eutopia.
The waterfront is big business. Within walking distance of Pike Place Market, the iconic tourist destination of the city, the waterfront sends a siren song to the fanny-packed and sun-tanned lotioned. As a kid, the waterfront meant the aquarium and a visit to Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe. Those staples still in place, the waterfront now boasts a Ferris Wheel and an amusement ride, burgeoning destinations in advance of a new waterfront experience.
Wings Over Washington bills itself as a flyover ride highlighting the natural splendor of the Pacific Northwest.
Playing tourist for a day meant experiencing this new attraction. Why not give it a shot?
After purchasing a ticket, teenagers mumbling through a minimum wage usher us to a room with four rows of benches. With room decor on the kitschy side of the Northwest-Lodge-style, the experience begins with a wannabe park ranger on a television screen explaining the concept of the thunderbird, a Native tradition around the sacredness of this area. Replicas of Native carvings begin to animate and after quick safety instructions, the ride rushes by in fewer than five minutes.
Not sure I would recommend from an amusement angle. But honestly, I felt pretty uncomfortable about the appropriation of Native culture for what is ultimately a business venture.
A Lens for Native Experience
In There There, Tommy Orange outlines the tension and downright injustice of Native Americans in modern-day USA. Relating to my Wings Over Washington experience, I couldn’t help but think of a short excerpt where a character in Orange’s story pens a metaphor for the Native American experience. It’s as if you invited someone over to your nice, rent-controlled apartment, and the person stuck around, started inviting friends, and then began working out of your apartment. Wings Over Washington takes this metaphor a step further, as if it tells your story and profits off of it, while living in your apartment.
This unease and anger permeates There There and operates as the engine for the entire novel. The story begins with an introduction, documenting the variety of sins put on the tab of the colonists.
“In 1637, anywhere from four to seven hundred Pequot gathered for their annual Green Corn Dance. Colonists surrounded their village, set it on fire, and shot any Pequot who tried to escape. The next day the Massachusetts Bay Colony had a feast in celebration, and the governor declared it a day of thanksgiving. Thanksgivings like these happened everywhere, whenever there was what we have to call ‘successful massacres.’ At one such celebration in Manhattan, people were said to have celebrated by kicking the heads of Pequot people through the streets like soccer balls” (5).
From there, Orange moves to his main narrative, a collection of stories, told through various characters, all connected to an upcoming powwow in Oakland.
“We made powwows because we needed a place to be together. Something intertribal, something old, something to make us money, something we could work toward, for our jewelry, our songs, our dances, our drum. We keep powwowing because there aren’t very many places where we get to all be together, where we get to see and hear each other” (135).
A Novel of Character
While each of the characters are fully realized, they approach the Native experience from different directions.
Some try to avoid the association.
“Ever since they were in her care, Opal had been openly against any of them doing anything Indian. She treated it all like it was something they could decide for themselves when they were old enough. Like drinking or driving or smoking or voting. Indianing” (118).
Some want to document the experience to explain if there is there.
“The quote is important to Dene. This there there. He hadn’t read Gertrude Stein beyond the quote. But for Native people in this country, all over the Americas, it’s been developed over, buried ancestral land, glass and concrete and wire and steel, unreturnable covered memory. There is no there there” (39).
And some just want some money.
Unmatched Energy and Shocking Turns
Orange’s incisive prose weaves these characters together into an explosive climax at the end of the novel.
There There contains unmatched energy and shocking turns. Its’ a masterful debut from a necessary voice. I’d much rather sit at the feet of Orange to learn than soar through Washington state on an appropriated symbol.
Verdict: 5 out of 5