17 April 2022
There There, by Tommy Orange - Book Review
My goal this morning is to write a book review of There There, by Tommy Orange. Yet another MFA writer – and what blows me away about Orange is that he worked on this project with both Pam Houston and Sherman Alexie. Mind. Blown! Doesn’t make me want the MFA less. Makes me want it more. Also, reading his book, in particular the originating chapter, gave me insight about how to improve my final draft for our class (especially with Jillian’s feedback).
Orange’s story is complex. It interweaves the lives of various Native characters who we first believe to be unrelated (because their relations are obscure). By the end of the tale, their inextricable connections to one another are laid bare and solidified in concrete – never again to be unwound. These relations, in my mind, are a spiderweb: connected, interconnected, double-connected, woven, and sticky as fuck. The entire book, in fact, is Opal and Jacquie’s spiderweb, to which their mother, Victoria, was spiritually linked. Both Opal and Orvil find lesions in their legs full of spider’s legs. Victoria told Jacquie, “The spider’s web is a home and a trap” (101). Perhaps this is an overarching metaphor for Native people. All connected, in ways sometimes obscure, trapped by their lineage as much as at home within it.
On that theme of home and trap, each of the characters gives us a sense of impostor syndrome when it comes to their lineage, sometimes rejecting it, sometimes embracing it, but almost all the time thinking they are not “Indian enough” to be truly of it. This book takes a microscope to those emotions because what does it mean, really to be Native – or not to be “Indian enough,” anyway? What makes someone “Indian enough”? Is it the blood? I think the most poignant example of this lies with Edwin Black, an overweight man half-white, half-Native – at war with himself over his identity. He writes,
“I’d made it through two years of grad school, studying comparative literature with an emphasis on Native American literature. I wrote my thesis on the inevitable influence of blood quantum policies on modern Native identity, and the literature written by mixed-blood Native authors that influenced identity in Native cultures. All without knowing my tribe. Always defending myself. Like I’m not Native enough. I’m as Native as Obama is black. It’s different through. For Natives. I know. I don’t know how to be. Every possible way I think that I might look for me to say I’m Native seems wrong.” (72)
He's entirely trapped by his blood – almost paralyzed by it into nonaction. It is only by – sort-of – letting go and leaning into his Native warrior that he’s finally able to release what is pent up inside of himself.
Thomas Frank, also half-white, half-Native, feels similarly, but takes that feeling a step further. His emotions teeter between the white and Native almost wholly. One moment, he is “his great-grandma [who] split a tornado in two with a prayer” (216), the next his whiteness is “too much and not enough there to know what to do with” (216). One of my favorite lines from the book illustrates this so well:
“You’re from a people who took and took and took and took. And from a people taken. You were both and neither. When you took baths, you’d stare at your brown arms against your white legs in the water and wonder what they were doing together on the same body, in the same bathtub.” (216)
This sentiment is so potent for me, a white person whose family lineage had nothing to do with initial Native subjugation, but who reaps the “benefits” of those actions daily. When I consider the Native – I want to call it a plight, but that might not be fair – it instills an almost paralytic guilt – no, a shame – because of my skin color. I feel responsible and flail for solutions. Yet, there is no real solution; we cannot give back what was taken because it was more than just land.
This brings me to the message of the book. Nobody can undo what’s been done to our Native cultures. It’s a reality that crushes something inside of me. Yet, perhaps we can be allies, those of us who have no Native blood. Orange’s purpose in the book is to tell the story. This theme appears repeatedly but is most pronounced in the chapters of Victoria’s lineage. Early on, this exchange happens between Victoria and her younger daughter, Opal:
“With my eyes closed, I asked mom what we were gonna do. She told me we could only do what we could do, and that the monster that was the machine that was the government had no intention of slowing itself down for long enough to truly look back to see what happened. To make it right. And so what we could do had everything to do with being able to understand where we came from, what happened to our people, and how to honor them by living right, by telling our stories. She told me the world was made of stories, nothing else, just stories, and stories about stories.” (58)
I find it ironic, then, that as she ages, Opal sort of loses touch with Victoria’s appeal to activism. She becomes a hard-as-stone woman, having lost too many in her life to be soft, anymore. Her days are cut out like stamps, each one precisely the same as the last, executed perfunctorily through routine. Opal has let go of her memories, perhaps to escape her own pain: “Death eludes hard work and hardheadedness. That and memory. But there’s no time and no good reason most of the time to look back. Leave them alone and memories blur into summary” (165). Yet despite her attempts to let it go, her lineage comes back to her through Orvil, through Jacquie…via the powwow…and ultimately, their story is told by Orange.
Okay, so let’s talk about my favorite part of the book: Thomas Frank’s chapter. Something happened inside of me when I began reading Thomas Frank. It was a switch that flipped – a voice murmured as I read: “Whaaat is this chapter?” It was striking in its difference from the other chapters. First of all, it was written in the second person, whereby Thomas referred to himself throughout as “you.” This change of person, from third to second, was jarring – and immediately, my antennae were up. Does he mean me? No, he didn’t, but he sure got my attention!
Then, there was something so palpable about Frank’s descriptions of his coming into existence. Perhaps it was the repetition of the words, “before you were born” (208) that served as the drum-like rhythm of his first page, his newly-beating heart, the beating heart of his lineage – his blood.
The imagery of this chapter was not just vivid, it was tangible. Diaphanous, the way a child’s memory is. The tapping of toes and fingertips, we can feel the rhythm, see it, hear it. We become Thomas Frank’s rhythm – he assures it. In any case, at the bottom of page 209, I wrote “Total artist” because I just knew this character was different from the others.
It turns out, Thomas Frank’s chapter was published separately as one of Tommy Orange’s memoir essays, and I fucking knew it!
This fact lit a fire in my soul: if only I could be like Tommy Orange! Maybe he’s my new hero. This is precisely what my instructor, Greg, said to me when I told him I have enough ideas and content for a book. He said, “Start with the 5000-word essay.” Yeah. You gotta get published at the essay-length before people will back you for a book.
To me, Thomas Frank’s chapter, which is such a phenomenal amalgam of all the other stories’ messages throughout the book, is the heartbeat of Orange’s novel.
Just…I’m just mind-blown and more than thrilled to finally have a solution to a problem I felt I had no power to solve: I will be an ally to our Native cultures, I will share the stories I’ve learned, and I will point others toward learning Native stories. Maybe, then, I can be a part of the solution.