There There Summary

There There is a novel by Tommy Orange that tells the story of twelve Urban Indian characters attending the Big Oakland Powwow.

  • Orange begins the book with a nonfiction prologue reflecting upon Native American history and Urban Indians.
  • Characters such as Dene Oxendene, Edwin Black, Orvil Red Feather, and sisters Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield and Jacquie Red Feather all plan to attend the powwow for different reasons.
  • At the powwow, some characters die or are injured in a shooting when Tony Loneman and others turn on each other while attempting to steal the prize money for the dance competition.

Summary

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Last Updated on October 25, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 800

Author Tommy Orange begins his novel There There with a nonfiction prologue. He describes the Indian Head test pattern used by television networks up until the 1970s, which he remarks looked like “sights through riflescopes” with the Indian head as the target. From there, Orange jumps back in history to 1621 and evokes the story of the first Thanksgiving, which was actually a “land-deal meal.” Hundreds of Indians died two years later “from an unknown poison” after a similar meal with white settlers.

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Orange next details several instances of brutal violence against Native Americans by white settlers, such as the beheading and dismemberment of the chief Metacomet and the massacre of hundreds of Pequot Indians in 1637 (which was promptly celebrated with a feast by white settlers). He also gives a brief overview of the ways Native Americans have been perceived by white people and portrayed in the media: they were victims of murder whose deaths were celebrated, they were the enemy in cowboy shows, and they were appropriated across the United States as mascots for sports teams. All across North and South America, “Indians were removed, then reduced to a feathered image.”

To set the stage for his story, Orange moves on to describe what was considered by white authorities to be the “final, necessary step” in the assimilation of Native Americans: their move to cities. Orange explains that Native Americans took to the cities and made them their own, finding ways to preserve their culture, such as the establishment of Indian Centers. As Orange states, Urban Indians—the first generation of Native Americans born in cities—feel at home there. The cities come from the land—as such, for Urban Indians, “being Indian has never been about returning to the land. The land is everywhere or nowhere.” 

The fictional narrative in There There is the story of a powwow in Oakland, California, that turns to chaos due to a plan to steal the prize money of a Native American dance competition. It is narrated by a variety of different characters, and readers watch plans for the events of the powwow form and the characters lives’ slowly convene. 

All of the main characters of the story are at least partially Native American and come from difficult backgrounds and life experiences. Tony Loneman, a victim of fetal alcohol syndrome because of his mother’s alcoholism, has become involved in drug dealing mostly by accident. Jacquie Red Feather was raped by a boy named Harvey as a teenager, became pregnant, and gave her daughter Blue up for adoption. After another of her daughters, Jamie, commits suicide, Jacquie’s alcoholism and depression make her unable to raise Jamie’s children, and Jacquie’s half-sister Opal takes care of them instead. Edwin Black majored in Native American literature in college and struggles with internet addiction and his weight at the outset of the novel. He has never known his father. 

These characters and many others narrate the struggles of their personal lives at the beginning of the novel. As the story progresses, each character becomes involved in the events of the Oakland powwow and makes plans to attend. Some characters have booths at the convention, such as Edwin and Blue, who are members of the powwow committee, and Dene Oxendene, who is filming interviews for a documentary he is making about the lives of Urban Indians in Oakland. Others are performing at the powwow, such as Orvil Red Feather, who hopes to win the dance competition, and Thomas Frank, who participates in a drum circle performing there. 

Throughout the novel, it is revealed that many of the characters have ties to one another. Additionally, many characters discover ties they did not know they had or reestablish broken ones; in the end, they are nearly all connected in some way or another. Jacquie and Harvey, for example, reconnect by accident and attend the powwow together. Edwin discovers that Harvey is his father over social media; Blue, who suspects that Harvey is also her father when she meets him at the powwow, is Edwin's half-sister. Blue is the daughter Jacquie gave up for adoption so many years prior, though she is too nervous to reveal her identity to her during the novel. 

Most of the main characters attend the powwow to reconnect with or discover more about their Native American heritage, but several attend for nefarious reasons: Tony Loneman, Octavio Gomez, Calvin Johnson, Charles Johnson, and Charles’s associate Carlos attend with the objective of stealing the dance competition’s prize money. Armed with 3-D printed guns and bullets they planted the night before, the group enters the convention and attempts to steal the safe, but its members ultimately turn on each other. Several main characters are wounded or killed by gunfire.

Summary

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1837

Author: Tommy Orange (1982)

Publisher: Knopf (New York). 294 pp.

Type of work: Novel

Time: Present

Locale: Oakland, California

First-time novelist Tommy Orange vividly brings to life the stories of twelve characters who are traveling to the Big Oakland Powwow.

Principal characters

Orvil Red Feather, a young man who dreams of dancing at a powwow

Jacquie Red Feather, his estranged grandmother, a substance abuse counselor

Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, his great-aunt

Dene Oxedene, aspiring documentary filmmaker

Blue, organizer of the Big Oakland Powwow

Edwin Black, graduate of masters’ program in comparative literature, Indian Center intern

Octavio Gomez, drug dealer

Calvin Johnson, reluctant associate of Octavio

Tony Loneman, a twenty-one-year-old drug dealer with fetal alcohol syndrome

Daniel Gonzales, Octavio’s cousin; 3-D gun printer

Thomas Frank, Indian Center janitor, powwow drummer

In a March 2018 interview with Deborah Treisman for the New Yorker, writer Tommy Orange explained his motivations for writing his debut novel, There There. “I knew I wanted to write a multigenerational, multivoiced novel about Native people living in Oakland. My wanting to write it largely had to do with there not already being a novel about Native people who live in cities, and very few novels set in Oakland.” Orange further noted that Native people “suffer from poor representation” in general, and that novels about the experience of Native people still remain underrepresented in literature. In There There Orange accomplishes what he set out to do and much more.

In the prologue to There There, Orange delves into the relationship between contemporary “urban Indians,” to use his term, and the history of white violence against Native Americans and the appropriation of Native culture. “Getting us to cities was supposed to be the final, necessary step in our assimilation, absorption, erasure,” Orange writes, “the completion of a five-hundred-year old genocidal campaign. But the city made us new, and we made it ours.” In the rest of the novel, Orange explores urban Indian identity in all its vividness and variety through characters linked to a Native community in Oakland, California, the author’s hometown. To bring the diversity of this community to life and challenge what he has called “the monolithic version of what a Native American is supposed to be,” Orange switches between the perspectives of twelve characters, who are connected to each other by familial ties or circumstance. Many of them have complicated relationships to their ethnic identity and some live dangerous, uncertain lives as they struggle with poverty, violence, and alcoholism.Courtesy of Knopf Doubleday

Among the characters who struggle with the question of identity is a young man of Cheyenne descent named Orvil Red Feather. His struggles are at the heart of the book’s exploration of who and what is authentically Native American—he even Googles “What does it mean to be a real Indian.” Orvil and his two brothers were orphaned and are being raised by his great-aunt, Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, who he feels has discouraged them from openly practicing their traditional culture. Opal says that learning about their heritage is a privilege they do not have, but that he is a real Indian no matter what she or anyone else he teaches him.

Orvil goes about educating himself about what it means to be an Indian by watching YouTube videos of Native dances and studying various websites. He practices dancing in secret, sneaks Opal’s ill-fitting regalia out of her closet and wears it, and plans on dancing at the upcoming Big Oakland Powwow, the central event in the book’s plotting, to which all the major characters end up going. Putting on the regalia, he stands in front of the mirror, waiting to feel “like an Indian.” “He’s waiting for something true to appear before him—about him,” Orange writes. “It’s important that he dress like an Indian, dance like an Indian, even if it is an act, even if he feels like a fraud the whole time, because the only way to be Indian in this world is to look and act like an Indian. To be or not to be Indian depends on it.” © Elena Seibert

The other characters work out their own relationships to Native American culture as well—although not always as explicitly as Orvil does—and Orange devotes plenty of pages to introducing each of his characters’ stories. The first time each character gets their own section, Orange tells or allows the character to tell their narrative at length and gradually reveal their connections to the other characters. In keeping with the theme of shifting identities, the sections alternate between first, second, and third person, as if the characters are sometimes more, sometimes less, alienated from themselves and others.

Two other characters at the heart of the novel are Opal and her sister, Orvil’s grandmother, Jacquie Red Feather. Their crisscrossed journey spans decades and includes a formative childhood experience during the Native American occupation of Alcatraz in 1969–71, Jacquie’s struggles to remain sober, their estrangement, tentative reconnection via text messages, and the present-day trip to the Big Oakland Powwow. Orange communicates the sense of hard lives lived in a way that feels both authentic and moving. Because Orange gives a longer historical scope to their stories, they feel more lived in and fully wrought than some of the other narratives that unfold.

Another one of the book’s triumphs is its depiction of a third female character, particularly in its treatment of her history of abuse. Blue, who heads the committee responsible for putting on the powwow, was adopted by a white family living in Oakland Hills, a privileged suburban community. After high school, her mother tells Blue her birth mother’s name and that she is Cheyenne. Blue embraces Native life, getting a job at the Indian Center in Oakland before moving to Oklahoma and getting married the “tipi way,” in the Native American Church. This journey takes her into self-enlightenment but also sets her up in an abusive marriage that she stays in for several years. Orange understands the psychology that allows women to stay with abusive men and allows Blue to explain it in her own words. “After the first time, and the second,” she says, “after I stopped counting, I stayed and kept staying. I slept in the same bed with him, got up for work every morning like it was nothing.” She eventually leaves him to return to Oakland, to the Indian Center, and assumes leadership of the powwow planning committee.

Ultimately, There There proceeds as a countdown to violence, with Orange providing ample foreshadowing that his book will not end peacefully. The author makes clear that the contemporary violence that the characters commit and endure has deep roots in the historical massacre and enslavement of Native people by European settlers. In his prologue, Orange riffs on historical events such as the Sand Creek Massacre and relates these both to the appropriation of Native culture and land by white Americans and the current state of Native American life. “They did more than kill us,” Orange writes. “They tore us up. Mutilated us. Broke our fingers to take our rings, cut off our ears to take our silver, scalped us for our hair.”

While the prologue focuses largely on the violence of the past, Orange’s “Interlude” chapter midway through the novel is a discourse on Native life in the present day. Topics include powwows in general; the Big Oakland Powwow in particular; blood, both as a determinant of Native identity and as an unhealed wound; last names and their significance; and gun violence.

When the violence comes, it comes fast, and Orange ramps up the pace by narrating the events of the powwow in very short sections. Some of the characters, armed with white plastic guns made by a 3-D printer, come to rob the gathering of its prize money, in the form of $50,000-worth of Visa gift-cards. Their plan soon goes awry, however, and devolves into a massacre at an event that its participants view as a safe space. Orange makes a point of detailing the diversity of the attendees, and that in the end they are all subject to the same violence. After the longer, reflective earlier sections, Orange expertly handles the switch in pace, bringing his book to a satisfying, if bleak, conclusion. That this conclusion offers little hope feels despairing, but reflecting back on the book, the reader cannot help but remember the vividness of the culture that Orange has celebrated as well as the inspiring perseverance of several of the characters. In this way, There There leaves the reader with a richness and sense of life that the ending cannot negate.

There There won high praise as an American epic from reviewers as well as accomplished writers such as Louise Erdrich, Margaret Atwood, Pam Houston, and Marlon James. In her blurb for the novel, Erdrich wrote, “Welcome to a brilliant and generous artist who has already enlarged the landscape of American fiction.” James compared the novel to “a thunderclap; the big booming, explosive sound of twenty-first-century literature finally announcing itself.” Alicia Elliot, a reviewer for the Globe and Mail, wrote of how Orange’s work prompted her to think of the concept of double consciousness, and how “racism puts racialized writers in a curious predicament: they must choose between telling the story they want to tell and censoring their work for the sake of how others outside their community will read it.” While Elliot wondered whether non-Indigenous readers would use parts of the novel to reinforce stereotypes, she hoped that they would appreciate Orange’s “effective, masterful execution of his singular vision.” Chelsea Leu, writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, expressed her faith in Orange’s ability to challenge such stereotypes: “Orange clearly knows that the antidote to a narrative defined mostly by stereotypes is to double down on complexity,” which he does by “homing in, documentary-like, on the details, using fiction as a camera that sees and records without mythologizing,” as well as by showing the characters’ lives as “a collective, connected endeavor,” rather than a monolithic community.

Review Sources

  • Elliott, Alicia. “Review: Tommy Orange’s Stunning Debut Novel There There.” Review of There There, by Tommy Orange. The Globe and Mail, 5 June 2018, www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books/reviews/article-review-tommy-oranges-stunning-debut-novel-there-there/. Accessed 18 Oct. 2018.
  • Garner, Dwight. “‘There There’ Is an Energetic Revelation of a Corner of American Life.” Review of There There, by Tommy Orange. The New York Times, 4 June 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/06/04/books/review-there-there-tommy-orange.html. Accessed 18 Oct. 2018.
  • Larman, Alexander. “There There by Tommy Orange Review – Moving and Powerful.” Review of There There, by Tommy Orange. The Guardian, 15 July 2018, www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jul/15/there-there-tommy-orange-review. Accessed 18 Oct. 2018.
  • Leu, Chelsea. Review of There There, by Tommy Orange. San Francisco Chronicle, 7 June 2018, www.sfchronicle.com/books/article/There-There-by-Tommy-Orange-12974292.php. Accessed 18 Oct. 2018.
  • Orange, Tommy. “Tommy Orange: ‘There’s a Monolithic Version of What a Native American Is Supposed to Be.” Interview by Hannah Beckerman. The Guardian, 30 June 2018, www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jun/30/tommy-orange-native-american-novelist-interview-there-there. Accessed 18 Oct. 2018.

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