Throughout my reading There, There, the critically-acclaimed debut novel from Tommy Orange, I innately sensed the vast number of stories, perspectives, and histories rattling around in his brain to share with the world, and the challenge he must have felt channeling them into a single novel. Each of these stories take the form of characters in the book, more than 20 all-told by the end of the novel, who share their own personal histories via chapters christened with their own names.
The sheer quantity of characters and voices should feel overwhelming, but in Orange’s steady hands, they each feel worth of their own consideration, and could be appreciated as short stories or excerpts in their own right. That these stories all tie together, each character with an intricately designed role in the novel’s broader narrative, speaks to Orange’s capacity as a storyteller.
The stories Orange tells, of Native Americans from Oakland, the West Coast, and across the United States converging on a powwow at the Oakland Coliseum, all feel familiar, as if pulled from a lifetime of Orange’s family, friends, and acquaintances. Through the chapter-vignettes, each character bares their own histories, hopes, and fears. Their shared Native identities notwithstanding, each character feels separate and unique, requiring their own consideration and judgement.
Like Orange’s fictional documentary filmmaker Dene Oxendene (one of the earliest characters to appear in There, There) who receives a grant from the California Arts Council to document the stories and of the Native American community of Oakland and the meaning they assign to their Native identities, each of Orange’s characters have their own perspective on being Native, informed by childhoods, encounters, estrangements, and relationships. Over the course of the novel, the characters impart these feelings in all of their complexity, all to the benefit of the fortunate reader.
Far from “showing promise” or giving readers a bright future to look forward to, There, There hits it out of the park. The book stands on its own, and defies the labels and comparisons that readers and reviewers have already begun to bestow on it (and Orange.) It is a book that has the power to open up the minds and hearts of those who read it, and most importantly, accomplishes the objective set out by Orange in the book’s powerful prologue: to reintroduce Native Americans to the broader American public as they are today: beautiful, diverse, and proud.