One of the characters in Tommy Orange’s debut novel, There There, is a filmmaker named Dene Ozendene who is taking over a project started by his uncle Lucas before his death. In an interview for a grant, he describes the work this way:
What he did, what I want to do, is to document Indian stories in Oakland. I want to put a camera in front of them, video, audio, I’ll transcribe it while they talk if they want, let them write, every kind of story I can collect, let them tell their stories with no one else there, with no direction or manipulation or agenda. I want them to be able to say they they want. Let the content direct the vision. There are so many stories here.
This book feels a little like that project in novel form. It’s the story of urban Indians in Oakland. Each chapter follows a different character, with Oakland seeming, for much of the book, to be their only commonality. They come from different tribes, if they are enrolled in a tribe at all. They are from different generations and have different experiences, although many have experienced some sort of trauma — a lost parent or a lost child or addiction or homelessness. These aren’t necessarily their own stories as they would tell them. Some chapters are in first person, but most are in third. (And they have a similar tone, which makes it sometimes hard to keep characters straight as the story expands.) But the book has that feeling that Dene describes, of being every kind of story, simply told with no clear agenda.
As the book goes on, all the stories converge on a single event, the Big Oakland Powwow. Some characters are helping organize the event. One of my favorite characters, Orvil Red Feather, is preparing to dance at the powwow for the first time, having taught himself secretly by watching YouTube videos, as his adopted grandmother (really, his great aunt) has been too busy working to keep the family fed to connect him with Indian traditions. I would have read a whole book about Orvil and his family.
This is a good book, well-written and engaging throughout. For me, there were a few too many characters. There’s a whole plot involving a robbery that could have been simplified. As it was, I didn’t care enough about the characters in that plot to feel invested in its outcome, aside from how it touched other characters that I did care about. And I did care about most of the characters. I appreciated the way Orange had certain themes echo across lives, while giving each character their own story.
I think it’s likely to do well in the Tournament of Books and even has a good shot at the rooster — better than my own favorites, which have qualities that are likely to irritate some readers. That’s not the case here. This is a solid and interesting read, especially for a first-time author.