By Randy Kraft
Gertrude Stein, in the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, famously wrote of her childhood town of Oakland, there is no there there. Everything had changed. Tommy Orange, in a remarkable work of fiction, explores the concept metaphorically, placing his story in Oakland.
Three There is a novel about Native Americans, what Orange calls Natives. Not Louise Erdrich’s thoughtful reservation natives, neither the Indians of Hollywood westerns. This novel is told through the voices of young urban Natives. They do not live on a reservation. They are not subject to the laws of their elders. Nevertheless, they live, and are worn down by, the weight of marginalization.
Plenty of us are urban now. If not because we live in cities then because we live on the internet. Inside the high-rise of multiple browser windows. They used to call is sidewalk Indians. Called us citified, superficial, inauthentic, cultureless refugees, apples. An apple is red on the outside and white on the inside.
Orange, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, knows his characters and reveals them warts and all. He writes of children born with fetal alcohol syndrome and those who become alcoholics. He writes of those who are unemployed or unemployable. Those who yearn for ethnic pride but suffer the shame of their heritage. The obsessive or lethargic. The poorly educated and the brilliant. The brown or nearly white, but not red. Over and over, we see characters stare into a mirror and try to see beyond their own image to who they really are in this time and place.
There There is about different people dealing with the same problem. Parents and children struggling to accept their limitations and rise above societal constraints. How we choose, or do not choose, who we love. America’s history of subjugation of the other. And, in the end, about America’s culture of violence, traced to a pathological and heinous effort to eradicate those who came before.
The writing is clear, commanding and rich with images and essential truths. The punch is powerful. The context is of course timely. Many contemporary novels deal with other cultures – Indian and Asian are especially popular and interesting. Too few stick closer to home.
What I’m here to talk about is how our whole approach since day one has been like this: Kids are jumping out the windows of burning buildings, falling to their deaths. And we think the problem is that they’re jumping. This is what we’ve done: We’ve tried to find ways to get them to stop jumping. Convince them that burning alive is better than leaving…
I loved reading There There, even as I often recoiled [the opening pages, an essay of sorts, are deeply disturbing]. I cried, and decried, and hoped beyond hope for a better end. A novel that grabs you and holds you and makes you care about even the worst of the bunch, because their struggles mirror the worst of us. And like Natives, we turn our eyes from our own image. Especially at this moment, whatever your politics, when children are ripped from their mothers’ arms and Americans salute the leaders who perpetuate alienation. The worst and also best aspect of this novel is the harsh reminder we, human beings that is, Americans notably, are as inhumane as we pretend not to be.
Available in hardcover and for your favorite e-reader, and a great title for book groups. Stay tuned to the OC Book Blog for recommended summer reading, coming soon.
By Tommy Orange
Published by Knopf; hardcover, 304 pp. $25.95