A postal worker, a young teenage boy, a documentary filmmaker, a scholar with a Masters degree in Native American literature, and a woman struggling with alcohol addiction are individuals who have three things in common: they are all Native Americans, they all live in Oakland, California, and they are all attending the Big Oakland Powwow. These five disparate individuals are only part of the cast of twelve characters, who also share those common attributes, in Tommy Orange’s stunning debut novel,There There.
The author, who was born and raised in Oakland, California, uses the city as the vortex around which the lives of the novel’s twelve characters circle, escape, and ultimately, return for the Big Oakland Powwow. Each chapter is told through the perspective of one of the twelve characters. Through each chapter, characters are introduced, as well as their different reasons for attending: some are on the planning committee, some work at the facility where the Powwow is being held, some have been attended the event many times, while for others this will be their very first one. Some of the characters know each other, while others share connections that are revealed as the novel progresses. And, as they are all drawn to the novel’s climactic events at the Powwow, it becomes clear that it will be a life-altering event for all of them. Some will come away with new beginnings, others will never be the same, and a few may not survive.
By allowing his many characters to focus their collective attention on the Powwow, Orange provides a kaleidoscopic view of life for contemporary Native Americans. While there may be a few shared traits, like where they live or tribal affiliations, Orange emphasizes a truth generally overlooked when dealing with almost any racial, ethnic or cultural group of people: that the group is made up of unique individuals, and any attempt to homogenize or standardize them and their experiences, is doomed to fail.
The majority of events in There There are comprised of simple, daily occurrences: job stress, family dynamics, concerns about the living, and mourning those no longer with us. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that a number of significant moments for several characters will be occurring at the Powwow. Orange ratchets up the tension as the Powwow transforms from a celebration to the site of a type of violence, that is all too commonplace and yet still life-shattering.
Tommy Orange’s debut novel, There There, is a brutal yet touching, searing yet heartwarming multifaceted window into what it means to be Native American in the 21st century. While it is clear neither he, nor his characters, can speak for all Native Americans, he speaks for as many as he can.