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There, There sets bar on Indigenous urban stories

Putting Tommy Orange’s masterclass on storytelling at the top of your reading list is not a bad idea, as the Oakland-set novel sets the author as one to watch in the coming years. (Daniel J. Rowe, The Eastern Door)

Tommy Orange’s debut novel There, There (Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95) was one I wanted to read as soon as I saw it on the New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2018.

First, debut books are always worth a look because you may just find a new promising author to follow for years to come, and second, the book, is set in Oakland, and centres on the urban Indigenous experience.

The book is indeed fantastic and one to put at the top of any reader’s list for 2019.

Oakland is one of the hottest cities on the west coast to live in, attracting hipsters from across the globe to work primarily in the region’s tech industry: Silicon Valley.

It’s across the bay from San Francisco, has a cheaper standard of living, and boasts a thriving cultural heart.

As with all hipster locales, however, there is a history in the city that is in peril of being forgotten, as are the people who lived there long before it was cool.

A friend of mine lives in Oakland, and when visiting the powwow in Kahnawake two summers ago, he lamented the lack of Onkwehón:we representation in Californian cities as a whole, but Oakland specifically.

Tommy Orange just answered the call.

Orange keys in on a broad selection of characters in the book, who all are planning on attending the Oakland powwow.

There are gangsters, geeks, addicts, mothers, sons, daughters, dancers and those trying to find their way in this book, and Orange expertly weaves the characters’ stories into one another with care and style.

Some are tragic, some are funny, some are stoic and some are straight up mean.

To say it’s enjoyable is to understate the impact of reading There There’s 290 pages.

There There comes from the Gertrude Stein quote, “there’s no there there,” as well as a Radiohead song, with both mentioned in Orange’s book.

The novel is a creative writing master class in its constantly changing narrative style, depending on the character leading each chapter.

The characters are complex, never slotting into the “good” or “bad” types, and take you on journeys that show their lives rather than telling you about them. The difference is key and easy to pick up when reading the book.

Historic events like the Onkwehón:we occupation of Alcatraz, and the book’s prelude, help situate the stories that run through the events.

The urban experience is a unique one, and, like Katherina Vermette’s The Break, it’s encouraging to see the cityscape featured in novels.

The marquee moment of the book, the Oakland powwow, adds the perfect locale for the dramatic climax of the novel.

It is a place for cultural expression, but also a scene of violence the storyline is inevitably leading to. The impact is powerful and poignant. A space meant to be safe is disrupted by the realities of urban life.

The only criticism I can muster for the book is the sheer volume of characters is a task to take on. Some characters blast onto the page, and grab hold with their tragic story, only to be left for dozens of pages before they return. With fewer characters and more of each of those, the book may have benefited.

The criticism, however, is a minor one, and did not drastically take away from the overall enjoyment of the book.
Make this book the first one you read in 2019, and you will have started a year right.   

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