There There by Tommy Orange. June 5, 2018. A.A. Knopf.
Tommy Orange’s shattering novel follows twelve characters from Native communities: all traveling to the Big Oakland Powwow, all connected to each other in ways they may not yet realize. There is Jacquie Red Feather, newly sober and working to make it back to the family she left behind. Dene Oxendene, who is pulling his life back together after his uncle’s death, has come to work at the powwow to honor his memory. Fourteen-year-old Orvil has come to perform traditional dance for the very first time. Together, this chorus of voices tells of the plight of the urban Native American—grappling with a complex and painful history, with an inheritance of beauty and spirituality, with communion and sacrifice and heroism. Hailed as an instant classic, There There is at once poignant and laugh-out-loud funny, utterly contemporary and always unforgettable.
Why There There Matters
There There is an instant classic and, in my mind, ought to be required reading in American Literature. Native voices and stories are almost entirely absent in most American Literature classrooms and There There offers an even more overlooked perspective by featuring urban American Indian characters written by Native author, Tommy Orange. And what a phenomenal writer Orange is. His writing is visceral, yet poetic. He uses an innovative structure that is vital to the central message of the text and furthers the themes of storytelling and identity. The book is undoubtedly emotionally moving, yet through several analytical and historical interludes, Orange simultaneously offers the reader a cerebral experience. There is so much nuance and complexity at work in this text that it is sure challenge and engage every reader in the classroom.
The most difficult aspect of teaching this text may be keeping track of the twelve point-of-view protagonists, but this could be easily tackled with graphic organizers, jigsawing, or other in-class activities. In general, multiple POV books are often beloved by students outside of the classroom, but rare in the English curriculum. I love multiple POV books as a way of exploring how every character--and every person--perceives the same events differently. This understanding is infinitely valuable for students as readers and as people. In this text specifically, I value the diversity of perspectives Orange gives to his characters. There are men and women, teenagers and grandparents. Some characters are tribally enrolled and deeply connected to their heritage, while others are just getting in touch with this aspect of their identities.
Due to the complexity of the language and intensity of the subject matter, There There won’t be a book that is easy for students to read. It will, however, be well-worth the effort and by the time the novel’s stories intersect and the pace picks up, students will be hooked. I really hope to be lucky enough to teach this book one day.
Themes and Social Issues: Identity, culture, colonization & assimilation, storytelling.
Literary Features: This would be a great novel to use in a unit on structure and pace. There’s a lot to analyze in Orange’s use of parts, segments, and interludes, as well as the way the novel builds from a slow-paced character study to a warp-speed close up of a tragedy. Because there is an array of strikingly different point-of-view characters, There There could also be used to discuss voice and perspective. The novel also offers much to discuss about characterization, both how characters portray themselves and how others see them, and symbolism, particularly through the recurring imagery of the Indian Head.
Pairs Well With: Early American Literature, An Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, The Joy Luck Club, Homegoing
Content Awareness: While this is undoubtedly a violent story, everything in the novel feels purposeful and essential. The novel includes a mass shooting, beatings, an allusion to rape, and some graphic references to bodily functions.
Grade Level Recommendation: 11-12. There, There would be particularly well-situated in an American Literature classroom.
There There was graciously gifted to me by the A.A. Knopf in exchange for an honest review.