THERE THERE. By Tommy Orange. Knopf. 294 pages. $25.95.
When Orvil Red Feather, one of a rotating cast of speakers in Tommy Oranges’ first novel, “There There,” asks his grandmother questions about heritage, she says that people like them don’t have the privilege to waste time thinking about the past. “You’re Indian because you’re Indian because you’re Indian,” she tells him. Orange points out in an interlude: If you have the option not to think about history, “that’s how you know you’re on board the ship that serves hors d’oeuvres and fluffs your pillows.”
Everyone else is swimming or drowning in history. Orange’s urban Indians are survivors (Just don’t call them resilient! “Would you call an attempted murder victim resilient?”). They were supposed to be erased by now, but here they are: still speaking, still paddling away, not lost in the sprawl.
Orange is a member of the Cheyenne and Arapahoe tribes. He begins “There There” with a brilliant 10-page prologue: a tour of images, atrocities and policies past, starting with the Indian head test pattern on late-night TV and moving through various massacres to arrive at the present urban moment in Oakland, Calif.
Orange makes clear that there is no single Indian story and no single correct Indian. If he has any message to deliver, it is this: What you know is wrong. History has told you the wrong story. The character in “There There” who most closely stands in for the author is Dene Oxendene, a Native documentary filmmaker who sets up a story booth and invites Indians to tell him a story that matters. Then he listens.
Like other collective narrators — the Bundren family in William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” and Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims come to mind — Orange’s characters speak as individuals, but they are on a journey together. Specifically, many of them will converge at the Great Oakland Powwow. Orange keeps the powwow before our eyes almost from the start. Huge and optimistic, it carries the hopes of many of the characters, and eventually, the dread of careful readers (early on, a heist is planned to disrupt the powwow, and bullets are bought). By the end of the novel, Orange has taken us full circle from outrage to outrage.
He sets a congested stage with a large and tangled population. There’s a small-world feel to his characters, many of them related, though they don’t always know it. Orange gives us fluid families, stable and unstable homes. Almost no one lives in a traditional nuclear arrangement. But all these unwed mothers, teenage orphans, overweight internet addicts, drug pushers and drunks come with someone who will lift them up and care.
Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield is a central, loving character. Three heroin babies call their great aunt Opal “Grandma” because their own grandma, Jacquie Red Feather, has been out of the picture since the boys’ mother committed suicide. More than one abandoned child is seeking a biological parent. One of the reunions, between Harvey, the powwow emcee, and Edwin Black, the son he’s never met, is set to happen at the powwow. Edwin travels to the powwow with his friend, Blue, who knows the name of her birth mother, Jacquie Red Feather. What she doesn’t know is that she and her friend Edwin may share a birth father, Harvey, the powpow emcee.
The first character to speak, and also the last, is Tony Loneman, whose intelligence measures in the lowest quartile, a result of fetal alcohol syndrome (he calls it “the Drome”). His counselor tells him that he’s “smart when it counts.” The world may try to make Tony its dupe, but he does prove to be smart and brave when it counts. Orange gives Tony the last words of the novel (“... even now it is morning, and the birds, the birds are singing”).
Tony is one of two speaking characters, both pure-hearted innocents, who wear regalia to the powwow. The other is Orvil Red Feather. Orvil is the speaker most likely to ignite our love. In one moving scene, he stands in front of the mirror wearing borrowed, ill-fitting regalia. Orvil sees himself as “a fake, a copy, a boy playing dress up,” but he’s too modest. He’s a self-taught Indian, seeking to blend the new and the ancient. The first time he saw a dancer on TV, moving “like gravity meant something different for him,” Orvil knew: “He was part of something. Something you could dance to.”
“There There” is a daring book about authenticity and belonging. Orange takes his title from a line in Gertrude Stein’s “Everybody’s Autobiography”: “There is no there there” — her response to coming home to Oakland after many years in France, only to find that her old house had been torn down.
Tommy Orange has emphatically put the “there” back in his home town. He writes to name and reclaim what’s been lost but also to celebrate what still is. On every page, Orange reminds us that Indians are a “present tense people,” not ghosts of old cliches. “There There” delivers fresh news that may break your heart.
Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.