The best way to understand the ending of There, There, Tommy Orange’s new novel, is to remember that the bullets were always coming. Orange tells you this in the non-fiction prologue to the book where he describes what it’s like to be a Native American today. The Europeans who ‘settled’ the land “fired their guns into the air in victory and the strays flew out into the nothingness of histories written wrong and meant to be forgotten. Stray bullets and consequences are landing on our unsuspecting bodies even now.” (10)
Later, in an interlude, he reminds you what to look for as the climactic powwow approaches:
“Something about it will make sense. The bullets have been coming for miles. Years. Their sound will break water in our bodies, tear sound itself, rip our lives in half. The tragedy of it all will be unspeakable, the fact we’ve been fighting for decades to be recognized as a present-tense people, modern and relevant, alive, only to die in the grass wearing feathers.” (141)
Yes, I forgot the spoiler alert. But you don’t need one. This book is not about the violent ending where the story of the twelve disparate Native American characters comes together. It’s about the many ways they have lived before they got there.
There, There has been getting a lot of positive press. It’s a first novel by an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. It’s acclaimed for its strong writing, realistic characters, and refusal of stereotype. All true.
But Tommy Orange didn’t come by his identity easily. Like his characters, he struggled with what it means to be Native American in Oakland, California after centuries of concentrated effort to make that label past-tense. “Getting us to cities was supposed to be the final, necessary step in our assimilation, absorption, erasure, the completion of a five-hundred-year-old genocidal campaign,” Orange says in the Prologue. “But the city made us new, and we made it ours.” (8)
So 12-year-old Orvil Red Feather, sees a dancer in full regalia on TV and feels something that propels him into learning about his heritage:
“The dancer moved like gravity meant something different for him…There was so much [Orvil had] missed, hadn’t been given. Hadn’t been told. In that moment, in front of the TV, he knew. He was a part of something. Something you could dance to.” (121)
Meanwhile, the Great Aunt who raised him, suppressing that heritage because of the pain it caused her, Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, listens to Otis Redding and Smokey Robinson and feels a different impulse to dance. “That’s what she loves about Motown, the way it asks you to carry sadness and heartbreak but dance while doing so.” (162)
There are alcoholics and revolutionaries here. Abusers, artists, and criminals. But they endure by not letting anyone else get the last word on what it means to be Native American.
“Too many of us died to get just a little bit of us here, right now, right in this kitchen,” Opal tells Orvil. “You, me. Every part of our people that made it is precious. You’re Indian because you’re Indian because you’re Indian.” (119)
The title of the book comes (in part) from Gertrude Stein’s famous comment about Oakland after discovering that her childhood home was lost to new development such that now “there is no there there.” But Orange’s characters are building something new in the urban landscape. They are no strangers to 3-D printers and drones and the technology that is threatening to turn every place into a soulless, placeless void. It may be dark, but as one wounded protagonist notes in the aftermath of the powwow, he “isn’t going anywhere.” (290) He will remain.
A quote from Jean Genet begins the fourth section of There, There: “A man must dream a long time in order to act with grandeur, and dreaming is nursed in darkness.” (227) Tommy Orange’s book is such a dream.