In his debut, Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel, There There, Tommy Orange warns of the injustices faced by Native American communities. The book adopts various viewpoints through the eyes of different characters, all of whom are looking for a place of belonging, where they are not labelled as ‘Indians’.
As a novel by a native author about native characters, There There cannot avoid being labelled as such. It begins with a historical prologue, which explains the conquest of the New Continent, the massacre of its native people, but also about how some of their traditions have endured, such as the Powwow festival. This heavily informs the rest of the novel, whilst also setting the tone of the book. Beyond this narrative of desperation, There There embraces a universality of experience: it explores all points of view, from the internal one (‘I’) to the external (‘he’/ ‘she’) to those addressing the reader (‘you’). All genders, ages, skin colours and social backgrounds are tackled as Orange seeks to capture all experiences of native life.
The novel draws its winding storyline from character to character, leading up to the Powwow. This Indian festival, which could well represent the ‘there there’ place, is a symbolic event and a place of gathering for the Indian community. From here, all familial connections are shrewdly woven together from one point of view to another, so the reader slowly builds up a huge family tree. We follow the lives of several characters: Edwin Black, who does not know his father; Jacquie Red Feather, raped by a certain Harvey, and who had two daughters, one dead, the other somewhere out there; Harvey himself; and Blue, who is looking for her mother. It is only during the Powwow, when they are put in the presence of each other, that we, along with the characters, realise that they are all related.
The endless number of characters is one of the novel’s problems, however. While the Native American community is varied, the subsequent interweaving of stories sometimes seems exaggerated. Orange seeks to connect everything, justify every character and explain why they are all going to the Powwow. He wants to tell every possible Indian experience, male and female, brown-skinned and white-skinned, abused and secure, rich and poor, violent and peaceful. But the reader ends up lost in names and unable to identify with all the characters, meaning we only get blurred sketches of them, lasting only a few pages each.
The novel closes by circling back to the sad origins from its prelude and a happy resolution seems impossible. It does not find the ‘there there’ that the title calls for. Rather, it illustrates what one of the characters, Dene Oxendene, says, quoting Gertrude Stein:
There is no ‘there there’[…]. She was talking about how the place where she’d grown up in Oakland had changed so much, that so much development had happened there, that the there of her childhood, the there there, was gone, there was no there there anymore.
There There does not call for hope and leaves the reader unsatisfied. This is not in itself a bad thing since Orange retains a rich and deep understanding of the main characters’ complexities. Moreover, the grim ending highlights how the injustice faced by Native Americans will not be resolved overnight. For many, native people remain a caricature – funny people dressed up in regalia, impersonating the ‘petty history’. Herein might reside the goal of There There: to show the injustice of reducing a whole community to one stereotype. But considering the novel sets itself the goal of unravelling the situation of Native Americans today, an ending that calls for action and not destruction might have been welcome – especially when dealing with such an unrepresented community.