Tuesday, July 17, 2018

There there, by Tommy Orange

The “there there” in the title is not a comforting “There, there” but a quote from Gertrude Stein who famously said, of her hometown Oakland, “There is no there there.”  This isn’t, as I once assumed, an insult to the city, but means that what she remembers is gone.  Tommy Orange’s first novel is set in Oakland, where the author also was raised.  He is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma.  The reader is introduced to the fairly large cast characters in short vignettes.  Each person has ties, close or distant, to his or her Native-American past.  Through these various viewpoints, Orange portrays the situation of the “urban Indian,” which is largely unknown outside of their communities.  One character is a young man with fetal alcohol syndrome who is painfully aware of his limitations and the facial characteristics that mark him as different.  One is a grandmother raising her alcoholic daughter’s three sons.  Another has fallen in with a bad crowd.  Many are related in ways they don’t know and all will come together in a climactic scene at the Big Oakland Powwow.  The book owes a debt to Sherman Alexie, which the author acknowledges, but the fresh voice is his own.  294 pp.

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