Book Review: There There by Tommy Orange

Book Review: There There by Tommy Orange (2018) 4 Stars ****

Set in Oakland, California, all fates converge in the horrific open-ended conclusion at the Oakland Powwow. Told in first person and third person points of view, brief vignettes focus on twelve Native characters whose lives become irrevocably changed. As in most Native stories, the characters are beset by familial and societal problems: alcohol, drugs, unemployment, poverty, absent/neglectful mothers, unknown/absent fathers, depression, hopelessness, and lack of positive role models. This book has been awarded the PEN/Hemingway Award and the 2018 National Book Award Longlist-Fiction.

Significance of the title? “There there” is a phrase commonly used to calm and comfort. In the political arena, the absence of there there becomes “no there there” which means there is no veracity or substance in the event or person being analyzed. This phrase comes from the author Gertrude Stein who was devastated upon re-visiting her childhood home with nostalgic sentiments, only to find her home in Oakland, California gone and the neighborhood razed to make room for modern improvements. “There’s no there, there,” Gertrude Stein sighed.

Tommy Orange tells us that for Native people, “Cities and towns represent ‘buried ancestral land, glass and concrete and wire and steel, unreturnable covered memory. There is no there there.’ ”

The Massacre as Prologue section contains a disturbing account. I found verification of the massacre but not evidence of Colonel Chivington’s defense. A Protestant Methodist minister, John Chivington, leader of a volunteer militia, maintains that on November 29, 1864 the Native people started the shooting, killing and maiming 49 of his men, so they were fully aware that there would be consequences to their actions. Chivington never denied the accusations. Tommy Orange’s notes: “Some of us grew up with stories about massacres. Stories about what happened to our people not so long ago. How we came out of it. At Sand Creek, we heard it said that they mowed us down with their howitzers. Volunteer militia under Colonel John Chivington came to kill us—we were mostly women, children, and elders.The men were away to hunt. They’d told us to fly the American flag. We flew that and a white flag too. Surrender the white flag waved. We stood under both flags as they came at us. They did more than kill us. They tore us up. Mutilated us. Broke our fingers to take our rings, cut off our ears to take our silver, scalped us for our hair. We hid in the hollows of tree trunks, buried ourselves in sand by the riverbank. That same sand ran red with blood. They tore unborn babies out of bellies, took what we intended to be, our children before they were children, babies before they were babies, they ripped them out of our bellies. They broke soft baby heads against trees. Then they took our body parts as trophies and displayed them on a stage in downtown Denver. Colonel Chivington danced with dismembered parts of us in his hands, with women’s pubic hair, drunk, he danced, and the crowd gathered there before him was all the worse for cheering and laughing along with him. It was a celebration.”

Colonel Chivington was reprimanded by the American government but no penalties were inflicted. War, whether declared or undeclared, is a scourge of humanity. I held my breath while reading this account. My head pounded. Actions such as described above are unconscionable. The saddest part of this for me, is that the accusations are true. It happened.

Getting back to the book as a whole it starts out strong and well-written but it changes in later chapters. Emotional involvement with the characters is barely established. Some chapters left me wondering as to their importance as a vehicle to show character and/or their contribution to the story as a whole. As the reader approaches the end, the writing becomes inconsistent as if the author stopped trying or caring and just put anything down on paper to fill space. Is this a metaphor for the lives and human condition about which the author writes? All in all, this is an important look into the psyches of a group of people who find it difficult or even impossible to assimilate and blend into American culture. The Native culture is cemented in history but some members of this group are hard-pressed to allow themselves to accept the culture in which they now find themselves.

 

Please let me know your thoughts. I’d love to hear from you. You can email me at elainewrites@earthlink.net

I wish you all a life inspired by the wonder of the world around us. May you find and live your truth, in harmony with people, nature and the environment. May you be a force for good and a source of love and comfort. May the world be a better place for you having lived and loved here.

All rights reserved 2020

Saturday, March 14, 2020- Barnes & Noble, Massapequa, NY 12:00-4:00pm

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