Trigger Warning: This novel and review discuss the following topics which may be triggers for some: abuse, alcohol and substance abuse, oppression, identity crisis, rape, suicide, public shooting, death.
Goodreads Rating: 4 Stars
This book is the November pick for my IRL book club, and I have a feeling there will be a LOT to discuss. With twelve different characters that alter between second and third person POV, this novel is a tall spun tale that can get pretty confusing- so please forgive any spoilers here as I try to explain this web. I swear, I had to take notes!
Each chapter starts off introducing the reader to an array of characters from Oakland, CA, who each have a reason for attending the Big Oakland Powwow. When they all arrive at the powwow, so much happens so quickly. The robbery doesn’t go as planned, there’s catastrophe, and many of those involved learn or reveal more about their true identities.
I put so much time into this novel, I wanted to make sure I had a clear understanding on who was who and how they were connected before I went on with reviewing it, so created a character map and took notes on all the character plots. Because I listened to this novel on audiobook the first time around, I was thoroughly confused by the first round of introductions, and completely lost at the end of the audiobook. There are just SO MANY MAIN CHARACTERS. Throw in the B-characters, and I felt like I was in a crowded room where I knew absolutely nobody. After trying to get the story straight, I realized I needed to reread a physical copy for better context. For me, this is an absolute turnoff, if things are so complex that I have to resort to a map to figure things out, I’ve buzzed past enjoyable reading.
However, this book might be the exception. Once I reread and all the subplots came together, I finally got the Ah-ha moment, the one that all those buzzing about Orange’s ability to weave a story together experienced. There, I realized how brilliantly crafted this novel was! However, that brilliance is completely lost in the audio version of this book, because if I had reviewed on that alone, I would have never figured out how the plot came together. Sadly, this still doesn’t make me completely understand Orange’s point of what it’s like to be an “urban Indian.” There’s a lot of destruction, a loss of identity within their own culture, but I’m sure there’s something else I’ve lost in the translation.
Overall, this book have left me baffled. Should you listen to the audiobook? Definitely not. It will not give you the same experience as the novel. Well then, should you read it? Absolutely! I cannot wait to discuss this at book club, because I’m hoping the ladies will have picked up pieces that I did not, and help me understand this book better. I know that if it wasn’t for them, I would have given up on it a while ago. But I can certainly say that reading the book made connecting the characters so much easier, and that is more than half the battle.
- Tony Loneman lives with fetal alcohol syndrome. He’s raised by a mother-figure named Maxine, his mother is in jail, and his dad doesn’t know he exists. He’s sick of people thinking he’s stupid just because they judge him by his looks, and he’s angry. As a drug dealer, his friend Octavio brings him into a scheme to make some money.
- Octavio Gomez is an alcoholic, a drug dealer, and dealing with the grief of losing family in a drunk driving accident. He’s also decided to rob the Big Oakland powwow using a 3D printed gun.
- Dene Oxendene is trying to overcome the loss of his uncle who died from liver disease due to alcoholism. He struggles with his identity, being half native and half white, and his uncle had planned on making a documentary about natives, so Dene decides to go to the powwow to continue his uncle’s project. He hopes this will give him some perspective on his heritage.
- Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield is going to the powwow to watch her great-nephew, Orvil Red Feather, perform traditional dances that he learned through the internet to win prize money. Orvil wants to feel more authentically native, and not just like he’s playing dress-up in his regalia. Opal took in all three of her niece’s sons- Orvil, Loother, and Lony– after she died, and is hoping that her sister, Jacquie, is coming back to Oakland for good.
- Jacquie Red Feather, a substance abuse counselor who struggled with her own sobriety after her daughter’s suicide, is driving back to Oakland. She’s accompanied by a man named Harvey, a man who raped her back in the 1970’s. They’d reconnected after attending a native substance abuse meeting, and Harvey is interested in righting the wrong of the past and finding the daughter they put up for adoption. Not so sure she wants to be reconnected with Harvey, Jacquie agrees to give him a ride to the powwow, since he’s the emcee and she’s going to watch her grandson.
- Edwin Black was raised by his white mother and yet doesn’t feel native enough. He’s never met his father, but he knows his name- Harvey- and where his parents met. His mom Karen has moved on, dating a man named Bill Davis, who is very hard on Edwin. So, Edwin arranges to meet his father, who he finds on Facebook, at the powwow.
- Blue is a native woman who was adopted into a white, middle class family, and all she knows about her biological family is that her mother’s name is Jacquie Red Feather. Deciding to leave her abusive husband Paul for good, Blue gets a job as an event coordinator for the powwow, and drives off to Oakland with her friend Geraldine Brown. Getting the job was two-fold though, as it also helped her learn about her native roots.
- Calvin Johnson feels guilty for his lack of claim over his native roots. “Mostly I just feel like I’m from Oakland.” His brother, Charles, runs in the same drug circle as Octavio, Tony, and a guy named Carlos. He owes Carlos and Octavio money, so Charles forces Calvin to help them pull off their heist at the powwow, because he’s working at the event.
- Thomas Frank, a half-white half-native man raise by a devout Catholic mother, struggles with his identity and alcoholism. After getting fired from his job at the hospital, he goes to the powwow and becomes a drummer.
- Daniel Gonzales is cousins with Octavio, and came up with the idea to use a 3D printer to make guns for the powwow robbery. He wants to be in on the heist in memory of his brother, Manny.
Are you lost yet? Here’s that character map to help!
Expected Publication: June 5, 2018
TL/DR: There There by Tommy Orange is a character-driven novel with an outstanding 12 main characters, who are each affected by the Oakland Powwow. Orange’s novel gives insight into the oppression of the Native people, even in modern time, and how it affects their lives.
Read it? Yes- and hang in there. Take notes if you have to so that you can follow everything. It’s complex, but the ending is worth it.
Recommend it? Yes, but I know it’s not for everyone due to it’s complexities and character-driven plot.
Buy it? I would, because it is complex and could take some time to read it- a loaner copy might put too much pressure on reading comprehension.
If you liked this novel or review, check out these similar reads:
- Neither Wolf Nor Dog by Kent Nerburn
- Commonweath by Ann Patchett
- Southernmost by Silas House
- The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
- Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory