There There by Tommy Orange

36692478There There is a relentlessly paced multigenerational story about violence and recovery, memory and identity, and the beauty and despair woven into the history of a nation and its people. It tells the story of twelve characters, each of whom have private reasons for traveling to the Big Oakland Powwow. Jacquie Red Feather is newly sober and trying to make it back to the family she left behind in shame. Dene Oxendene is pulling his life back together after his uncle’s death and has come to work at the powwow to honor his uncle’s memory. Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield has come to watch her nephew Orvil, who has taught himself traditional Indian dance through YouTube videos and has come to the powwow to dance in public for the very first time. There will be glorious communion, and a spectacle of sacred tradition and pageantry. And there will be sacrifice, and heroism, and unspeakable loss.

Review:

Trigger warnings for alcoholism, domestic violence, rape, and violence in general.

This is my second read for The BookTube Prize and it did not go as well as the first.

The good:

  • There There is an own voices story about urban Native Americans and the issues they face, from the trigger warnings above to loss of culture and traditions. It’s an important story that I’m so happy to see being told, and to such acclaim.
  • The introduction and interlude, essays about being Native American today, are powerful and affecting.
  • The story is told via many narrators, allowing for windows into many different Native experiences.

The not-so-good:

  • None of the narrators are particularly fleshed out. We learn who they are, what demons they may be fighting, and how they are related to the pow wow. But that’s it. I never felt connected with the characters as people, only as a set of circumstances.
  • …when I could remember them. My edition of the book has a detailed cast list in the front, with a paragraph for each main character. This made me suspicious – the book should make each character memorable enough for this not to be a problem. A list of names and one line description, sure, but paragraphs?
  • I am not a fan of the writing. It’s going for punchy more than lyrical, but I found it choppy and plodding.
  • The voice changes from first person to third and back again, which I found interesting at first. I was particularly intrigued by one chapter in the second person – what is Orange trying to say by making us, the reader, this particular character? But I don’t see any rhyme or reason to which character gets what treatment. The author Q&A at the end confirms my suspicion, as Orange says, “The final POV for each chapter in some cases wasn’t decided until the end of writing the book.” And that second person POV character becomes third again later. I would have liked more intention in the choices.
  • When it comes down to it I didn’t particularly care about any of the characters. You can tell that they’re all coming together for the pow wow, and that something big will happen.
  • At the end this big thing happens, but that’s it. No exploration of it while it’s happening, no aftermath.
  • The biggest detractor for me was that I had to fight to get through this book. I seriously considered DNFing at 85%, and definitely would have done so earlier if I weren’t reading it for the BookTube Prize. Not to mention it put me in a reading slump. Gah.

It’s an important story and I’m glad Orange is telling it, but the method of telling wasn’t for me.