I just finished There There by Tommy Orange, a remarkable novel set in Oakland, California. It is multiple stories of many different Indians and their families. It’s hard to read, because of all the sadness and loss and addiction. It’s hard to read because of the history you learn. He writes a Prologue that details the history of the Indians in our country, and he writes an Interlude that gives more details for the current time. It’s hard to read because, even knowing all those things, having them put together with the “real” lives of his characters is hard to read.
Story is such an important part of Native culture, and this is a book about story. Last week my husband and I attended a lecture at the Seattle Art Museum that was about how one Northwest Native mask can make its way into different tribes and places, adding different pieces to its composition. The two speakers made one important point: The reason all this exchange can happen is because the piece is not what’s important; it’s the story that’s told behind it. And each story is sacred and particular to each tribe.
At the beginning of There There the character Tony Loneman reflects on reading and story. Tony was born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and the first chapter about him has him realizing that his face tells the story of that disease. He calls it “The Drome.” His mother is in jail and he lives with his “Grandma” Maxine. He says, Maxine makes me read to her before she goes to sleep. I don’t like it because I read slow. The letters move on me sometimes, like bugs. Just whenever they want, they switch places. But then sometimes the words don’t move. When they stay still like that, I have to wait to be sure they’re not gonna move, so it ends up taking longer for me to read them than the ones I can put back together after they scramble. Maxine makes me read her Indian stuff that I don’t always get. I like it, though, because when I do get it, I get it way down at that place where it hurts but feels better because you feel it, something you couldn’t feel before reading it, that makes you feel less alone, and like it’s not gonna hurt as much anymore. One time she used the word “devastating” after I finished reading a passage from her favorite author — Louise Erdrich. It was something about how life will break you. How that’s the reason we’re here, and to go sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples fall and pile around you, wasting all that sweetness. I didn’t know what it meant then, and she saw that I didn’t. She didn’t explain it either. But we read the passage, that whole book, another time, and I got it.
This is a book will get you to that place “where it hurts but feels better because you feel it… .” And Orange is a terrific writer – no wasted words. The title comes from a Radiohead song by the same name. The last lines of the lyrics are: We are accidents waiting Waiting to happen, and those words are poignant and powerful as this book moves to its inevitable conclusion.