There There, by Tommy Orange

So many reviews call this book shattering, I would call it just the opposite. This story picks up the broken shards of lost stories and puts together a contemporary explanation of what happens when the past is forgotten just enough to haunt. With multiple characters speaking across the city of Oakland, Tommy Orange weaves together old beautiful language and street slang by equal measure with an innate talent honed by years of practice with great teachers.  He aptly constructs images of people most of us wouldn’t have guessed could survive at all with such pain and unnamed rage, out there somewhere, existing unsure of where they came from or why.

These are people struggling through the question of authenticity, struggling through the question of why they suffer that question and all the side-effects of suffering—addiction, violence, inexplicable fears, the shadows of memory out of nowhere. These are people that Mr. Orange presents to us not as characters but neighbors, co-workers, those people we’ve passed on the street and wondered why they just can’t straighten out their own damn lives for God’s sake. They are burdens straining the edges of society, mucking up the ground regular people walk on without a clue. Without a clue because the regular people don’t know the origin stories either. History either tossed the pages into a fire or convinced us all none of it mattered anyway, convinced us that we’re the regular people.

In one section of the story a group of Native Americans active in the community get together to discuss the astonishing suicide rates of young Native Americans. Groups like this have worked for years to stop the growing trend, to enact support programs and community outreach. But one man stands up to give a devastating, soul-piercing speech—he equates society, this group included, to someone who’s set a house on fire then told the young people it’s not okay to jump, to save themselves from the fire. As poignant as the analogy is, no solution is offered up. Maybe because the solution is obvious but no one knows how to stop setting the house on fire. Maybe that’s what humans do … build pretty houses just to destroy them in the end. Maybe we don’t realize there’s no real reason to be so fucking destructive.

Maybe if we took a minute to think here and there throughout the present as it crawls toward the future, we’d come up with intelligent actionable thought that leads to the right conclusion—stripping any one culture of its origin stories strips humanity of its of humanity. This sort of crime perpetuates crime, and ensures the kind of tragedies that take place at the end of There There to keep on keeping on. Not knowing where they come from convinces people their future doesn’t matter. Who can survive thinking their future doesn’t matter?

There’s a lot more to Mr. Orange’s novel than this. He shares the pain, the defense mechanisms, the unfocused rage and self-doubt of twelve people living in a specific time and place. The pain and the defense mechanisms and the rage, the city that rebuilds its identity in spite of its bland urbanity erasing identity, works together to tell a very complex story that left me heartbroken and irrevocably in love, ashamed and optimistic, lost and eager to find myself.

I can’t say if the author intended for his story of this very specific set of peoples’ struggles to be universal, but I certainly hope he appreciates that it can be. And I doubt, even as a student and writer, that he cares much about a middle-aged student and writer’s own struggle with identity, with culture and lack thereof. Maybe it’s all just too personal of a tale for me to internalize his truths and lies and fears and beautiful language. Maybe I make just another Caucasian-influenced faux pas in my decision to love this story and use it as a lesson for the future.

My grandfather was told to check white in the race box a long time ago, and though he never explicitly stated an explanation or his mother’s reaction to doing just that, I can surmise from his behavior as an old man that living without the old stories and without his mother’s people haunted him. Hurt him. Despite the negative results in his own life, he wouldn’t share what he knew of his ancestors with me, not really. He danced the perimeter of his garden and sang the memories of Cherokee songs, told stories in the language I couldn’t decipher.  He passed on memories I can’t quite remember, and gave me a hunger for something I may never be able to search out.

There are days and nights that I know a crime was committed, a robbery of stories that I should know and be able to repeat, to glean lessons from. Maybe. But who committed the crime? Those Army officers at a World War II recruitment office back in the 1940s who willingly cowed a shy young man, or the shy young man that somewhere deep down knew better? Or his mother, a Cherokee woman whose name isn’t on any of the roles, who left no documented evidence that she ever existed at all? My grandfather did leave me with hints of his own story inadvertently, by leaving me with advice on the night of his death. He told me that looking toward the future was important. And he told me to never walk into a room unless I could walk in like I belonged there. He told me to never allow anyone to treat me as less than.

All that tells me a lot about his life, and leaves me heartbroken. Irrevocably in love.

Thank you for writing There There, Mr. Orange.



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