In my attempt to diversify my reading, I reserved an audio copy of There There by Tommy Orange at the New York Public Library via Libby, the app that has saved me so much money. It was a swift breakup with Audible. Last year, or the year before, There There’s beautiful orange cover kept popping up in my feed. I follow a lot of bookstagrammers, publishers, and other pages associated with the literary world. I was intrigued. I love orange, as evidenced by my Crate & Barrel 9’X12’ orange living room rug, table seat cushions, throw pillows on my couch.
As much as the orange cover with yellow font and two feathers drew me in, I stubbornly stuck to my self-imposed rule to read Black authors, specifically Black female authors. For most of my school years, college and grad school included, I was forced to read white male and female writers, American and European, so I’m making up for lost time in terms of non-white authors and experiences. I’m not sure how I became aware that There There is written by a Native American writer.
Though There There is fiction, off the top of my head, the only other book I’ve read about the Native American experience is You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie, a heartbreaking memoir. There There is no less heartbreaking because it deals with family conflict, the loss of culture, the struggle to reclaim it as well as the ugly stereotypes that Native Americans, also called Indigenous people, face. In both the memoir and the novel, the writers use both terms: Indians and Native Americans.
While Black people deal with being called oreos, Native Americans deal with being called apples. Natives living off the reservation are referred to as Urban Indians. Whether on the reservation or living in cities, they face not being understood by white America even though they’re intertwined in the history, culture and even language of America.
An aspect of There There that I loved is that it tells the stories of several characters. Twelve to be exact, including Jacquie Red Feather, Dene Oxedene, Tony Loneman, Calvin Johnson, Edwin Black and others. At first, each of their “origin stories” chapters seem like self-contained short stories. As the novel progresses, the reader witnesses how their lives and paths cross, especially at one major and the most important event: the Big Oakland Powwow. The novel Is set primarily in Oakland, California, but some parts take place out of state.
Alcoholism and violence is a constant in several of the characters lives, as is the search for identity. There’s adoption, being biracial (derogatorily called half-breed), and not knowing a parent. Dealing with grief makes several appearances
The novel opens with the true history lesson of Massasoit, a name that rang familiar to me because I grew up in Massachusetts and there’s a college of the same name.
In 1621, colonists invited Massasoit, Chief of the Wompanoags, to a feast to celebrate a land deal. He came with 90 men. That misleading first and only harmonious meal is why Thanksgiving continues to be celebrated in America today. Left out of our school history books is that two years later, at a meal meant to symbolize eternal friendship, 200 Indians were poisoned. Massasoit’s son Metacomet, aka King Philip, became chief and was forced to sign a peace treaty to give up all guns. Three of his men were hanged and his brother Wamsutta is believed to have been poisoned by the Plymouth court. Benjamin Church, a white man with help from John Alderman, an Indian, captured Metacomet. He was dismembered and Alderman was given one of his hands, which he kept in rum for years, and charged people to see it. Orange also summarizes other gruesome true stories of massacres of Native Americans at the hands of colonists who kicked around decapitated heads and kept body parts in whiskey.
I enjoyed reading There There because though fictional, it was a glimpse of experiences and thoughts of Native Americans of different ages through their own eyes and voices. From the prologue to some of the derogatory terms lobbied at them to the importance and history of Powwows, I learned so much. It’s important that these stories are shared. There’s no denying that America is made up of many cultures, however, for too long, the original inhabitants have been overlooked and muted. They’re still here and deserve to be heard.