What We’re Reading: There There

Title: There There

Author: Tommy Orange

Genre: fiction

Why did you choose to read this book?

There There appeared on so many best-books-of-2018 lists and received rave reviews from authors and critics alike that I felt like it was following me, or the universe was telling me to read this book. Also, my book club chose it.

Tommy Orange’s debut novel traces the journey, through chapters named after the characters, of about a dozen Native Americans to the Big Oakland Powwow in California. It is set in the present day. Each of the characters has a different reason for going to the powwow and the reader gets a glimpse into the characters’ lives and what led them to this point. Suspense builds throughout the novel to a dramatic climax.

What did you like about it?

I like Orange’s writing. He gives each character a unique voice. As the story unfolds, the reader realizes that some of the characters have relationships to other characters, whether or not they realize it yet, and all of them are on a collision course to the Powwow.

Another aspect of the book I value is its glimpse into Native America. Each character’s persona includes some version of What It Means to be “Indian.” The stories that comprise the novel are personal and also speak to larger societal problems. How does Native culture pass from one generation to the next? What common themes unite the characters? What does it mean to be a member of a tribe? What does it mean to be in the United States, a native of the territory occupied by the country, but not entirely of the United States, an imperial and occupying force? How do religion and myth, stories, family, poverty, drugs, violence, etc. define the characters and drive them?

Did it remind you of any other book, or a movie?

It reminds me of Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, which is another novel set in Oakland, which—like There There—deals to some extent with gentrification, but from the perspective of two white business owners of a failing music store.

Was there anything noteworthy about the book?

There There was a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and won the 2018 National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize, which “recogniz[es] an outstanding first book in any genre.”

With what feeling did the book leave you?

It’s hard to convey how I feel about the book without spoiling it.

There There is a very important and readable book. I found it to be an enlightening book. I can’t say I disliked the ending, except that I wanted Orange to have kept writing beyond the last page and I finished the book craving resolution.

To whom would you recommend this book?

Many people should read this book and will appreciate it. People who are interested in the Native—or even immigrant—experience in the United States will learn from it. People who have experienced addiction or abuse will relate to many of the characters. People who live in-between cultures or families will find kindred spirits on a similar journey.

Check it out!

With what would you pair this book?

I would pair this with the aforementioned Telegraph Avenue for two very different, literary perspectives on present-day Oakland.

About Stephen Brooks

Stephen is a reference librarian at Durham Tech. He has blogged previously at acqweb.org and for American Libraries magazine online. He enjoys reading 20th and 21st century literature, biographies and books about sports.