There There: A Novel
Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Knopf; First Edition (June 5, 2018)
Reviewed by Dr. Wesley Britton
There There was a novel assigned to the members of a local book club I belong to. The book inspired a lot of discussion at our last meeting, and the responses ran the range.
I was among the members who really liked the book, but I easily understood the reactions of others with less positive feedback. Some were confused by the structure of the book as Orange has 12 characters telling their stories interwoven together, introducing us to one of the urbanized Native Americans living in Oakland, then the next, and so on, then back around the circle again. Other readers didn't like the book as it is rather dark and depressing in many sections. I have one friend who gave up reading the novel for that reason.
Much of the club's discussion didn't focus on the book itself, but rather the situations of identity in the modern Native Americans. Many of the characters not only wrestled with both pride and deep regret about the distant past when their cultures were devastated; some of the characters know very little about their heritage but still have strong opinions about it; and others know little about their personal bloodlines including any knowledge of who their birth parents are. All these threads are pulled together at a pow-wow in Oakland where all the book's characters congregate for a variety of reasons and mixed motives.
The cast includes Jacquie Red Feather, an alcoholic with a tortured past who meets her daughter Blue, for the first time. In turn, we meet the trio of Jacquie's grandsons like Orvil who adds a touch of magic realism to the story by continually pulling spider legs out of a wound on his own leg.
We also meet Danny who creates plastic guns on a 3D printer, one of the characters who infuses modern technology into a realm where most everyone has mixed feelings about their Native American past. Some characters plan on robbing the pow wow and come armed with Danny's guns as plastic can slip past metal detectors. But to describe the admittedly confusing pow wow falls into the realm of spoilers, so I won't say anything more about it.
Some readers in my book club didn't care for Orange's terse, spare writing style but I thought he was trying to allow many of his characters to speak in their own voices. yes, the book is dark and can be a downer, but that's offset, in my opinion, by the education we get into the circumstances of modern, urbanized Native Americans so far removed from their more agrarian forefathers and foremothers. Few of these stories are pretty; all of them seem all too real.
This review first appeared at BookPleasures.com on Sept. 25, 2019: