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{October 18, 2019}   {5 Star Review} There There by Tommy Orange

From Goodreads: There 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.

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“When we go to tell our stories, people think we want it to have gone differently. People want to say things like “sore losers” and “move on already, quit playing the blame game.” But is it a game? Only those who have lost as much as we have see the particularly nasty slice of smile on someone who thinks they’re winning when they say “Get over it.” This is the thing: If you have the option to not think about or even consider history, whether you learned it right or not, or whether it even deserves consideration, that’s how you know you’re on board the ship that serves hors d’oeuvres and fluffs your pillows, while others are out at sea, swimming or drowning, or clinging to little inflatable rafts that they have to take turns keeping inflated, people short of breath, who’ve never even heard of the words hors d’oeuvres or fluff. Then someone from up on the yacht says, “It’s too bad those people down there are lazy, and not as smart and able as we are up here, we who have built these strong, large, stylish boats ourselves, we who float the seven seas like kings.” And then someone else on board says something like, “But your father gave you this yacht, and these are his servants who brought the hors d’oeuvres.” At which point that person gets tossed overboard by a group of hired thugs who’d been hired by the father who owned the yacht, hired for the express purpose of removing any and all agitators on the yacht to keep them from making unnecessary waves, or even referencing the father or the yacht itself. Meanwhile, the man thrown overboard begs for his life, and the people on the small inflatable rafts can’t get to him soon enough, or they don’t even try, and the yacht’s speed and weight cause an undertow. Then in whispers, while the agitator gets sucked under the yacht, private agreements are made, precautions are measured out, and everyone quietly agrees to keep on quietly agreeing to the implied rule of law and to not think about what just happened. Soon, the father, who put these things in place, is only spoken of in the form of lore, stories told to children at night, under the stars, at which point there are suddenly several fathers, noble, wise forefathers. And the boat sails on unfettered.

If you were fortunate enough to be born into a family whose ancestors directly benefited from genocide and/or slavery, maybe you think the more you don’t know, the more innocent you can stay, which is a good incentive to not find out, to not look too deep, to walk carefully around the sleeping tiger. Look no further than your last name. Follow it back and you might find your line paved with gold, or beset with traps.”
― Tommy Orange, There There

Y’all. This book. It packs a punch like no other, and I was captivated by it as the stories began to intertwine and come to a head, to one final moment that brings the characters all together in this gripping tale transcending multiple generations. Gripping is an understatement… when all was said and done, and the novel stopped, I felt myself continue to lurch forward with momentum. I don’t think I can express how deep and beautiful this novel is. I can’t do it justice. But let me back up.

Tommy Orange’s novel is difficult to start. When I first began listening via audiobook, I thought I was going to hate it. It didn’t make sense to me. The prologue, which is part of the novel and should be read, begins with a candid retelling of history as North Americans know it–laying bare what the history books don’t teach us, shedding light on the part of history that we’d like to forget and sweep under a rug, never to be seen again. I thought to myself, “is this novel a history lesson?”. No. But yes. Though fictitious, it has many truths, and the experiences of many of these characters are unfortunately all too real. Because those affected by our nation’s bloody history in the past are still affected by it in our present, which Orange makes explicitly clear as his novel commences with the first story from our twelve narrators, Tony Loneman. Truth be told, the first story, Tony’s story, was not how I’d start this novel. I found it a bit dry, and I wasn’t sure where Orange was going with the novel. Then the second narrator took over, and I didn’t see any obvious connections, and I was wondering, “is this novel just a grouping of short stories?”. The stories were just there, and they didn’t entice me. They were just unhitched stories. But as I continued, I began to see the connections methodically woven between the characters, all of which is leading us, the narrators and the reader, to one final moment at the powwow; all of these twelve characters are perfectly interconnected, though they don’t know it as of yet. And as they continue their stories, adding to what we already know, and beginning to converge on Oakland’s Coliseum, the novel takes hold, creating feelings of intense foreboding through Orange’s employ of dramatic irony. The interlude, from which I quoted a particularly stunning section above, floored me, and it was then that I knew, without a doubt, that this novel is a five star read. Orange is matter-of-fact, and he’s hitting on topics that we, as a nation, have fought about for far too long, still attempting to sweep truth under the rug in order to not face the reality of our current world, or who we are, and our sordid history. And while the interlude above is just that, and the narrators barely touch upon what is explicitly stated above–it’s not a novel steeped in politics or in your face–it’s there, calling to the reader, reminding us that privilege exists, that some are luckier than others, and that if we are to survive this harrowing world, we must come together, to understand one another, and to stop the fighting. This novel is fierce.

When There There ended, I was speechless. One, I couldn’t believe Orange left us the way he did, but two, it’s just so unspeakably beautiful, thought-provoking, and intense.  Five amazing stars!

I borrowed the audible of this novel from the library, but then purchased my own paperback copy from Amazon, because this powerful novel is a must for my shelves.

Did you know that you can try a FREE TRIAL of Audible for 30 days? Try it today!

Kindle | Audible | Paperback | Hardcover



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