There There, Tommy Orange 2018

This debut novel by a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma is remarkable.  Chosen as one of the Ten Best Books of 2018 by the New York Times and the winner of the National Book Critics John Leonard Award, the book begins with a sobering and distressing essay about the history of genocide in North America. The book then embarks on the novel, introducing us to an ambitious cast of characters, each with distinctive histories and characteristics.  It’s the kind of book that when you’re done and all the characters have been brought together in the final chapters in an incredibly gripping and upsetting climax, all you want to do is go back to the beginning and get to know them again in more detail and depth.  The portrayal of Native American lives in Oakland where most of the action takes place is deeply depressing.  Orange frames the history of white/Indian relationships in this country in a brilliant metaphor in the middle of the book where he describes our society as one where some are ‘on board the ship that serves hors d’oeuvres and fluffs your pillows while others are out at sea, swimming or drowning or clinging to little inflatable rafts that they have to take turns keeping inflated, people short of breath, who’ve never even heard of the words hors d’oeuvres or fluff.  The someone from up on the yacht says, “It’s too bad those people down there are lazy, and not as smart and able as we are up here, we who have built these strong large, stylish boats ourselves, we who float on the seven seas like kings.”  Sounds like our moronic President, doesn’t it.  This is brilliant writing and remarkable for a young novelist publishing his first book.  The overall take-away message for me is that the treatment of the Native Americans in this nation is a disgrace and an ongoing tragedy. Alcoholism, chronic illness, poverty, unemployment are all rife in these communities and the white, privileged oligarchy continues to ignore their plight which Europeans created uninvited and single-handedly beginning 400 years ago.  Sobering but inspiring writing. If you’re wondering about the title, it’s derived from the writings of Gertrude Stein, born in Oakland and amazed at the changes in her hometown during her lifetime, and hence, ‘there’s no there there.”

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