Here we were, discussing There There, with fires raging in California and winds blowing the heat and haze out of our Las Vegas valley. Tommy Orange’s powerful tale of Native Americans in Oakland California captures a bleak existence of loss and longing with such realism and altering viewpoints that it is easy to be overwhelmed and unable to stay immersed. There There is not a fun read. In addition, the downside of such “polyphonic” stories is that it can be difficult for a reader to keep the characters straight and to stay connected and immersed, regardless of the content. One reading of the book is hardly enough to understand the complexity of the themes covered in the author’s essays and vignettes, which culminate in a modern-day massacre. Our one-hour discussion could barely touch the surface of possibilities, but it was enough to show how thought-provoking and timely we found the novel.
Our first responder, SO, didn’t like the constantly changing voice and characters. She found the characters not likeable. She also shared her experience at the Bryce Canyon Visitor’s Center where she heard stories told by various Native American peoples who consider the area sacred and she recommended that we visit if we can.
JT had to force herself to read. She didn’t like the ending, did not find the characters likeable and had a lot of questions. She started us on a discussion about those spider legs! What was the meaning? The story is so realistic that this touch of supernatural seemed too surreal. As I write this, I wonder now if this incongruity doesn’t capture the discordance of being Native American in America, of longing for something special and then not understanding or recognizing it when you find it. Never underestimate the challenge of discussing such weighty issues under the pressure of time and judgement!
A new member, DP, loved the book and couldn’t put it down. She has been a social worker, so she recognized the issues of identity, abuse, and poverty. She had hated Memoirs of a Geisha because the descriptions of abuse were too detailed. She had dreaded the ending here and appreciated author Tommy Orange’s handling of the violence.
MF didn’t like the book, but she really enjoyed the author’s description of feelings. Even as she spoke of it, you could see the power of the sentiment in her eyes above her mask. She had many questions and was disappointed in the ending. She wanted an epilogue. She wanted to know what the drone saw! No character stood out, but the story was interesting and definitely out of her comfort zone.
KK found the first three stories so hard that she quit reading; but when she went back, she enjoyed it. She found it realistic and admired Opal, a single grandma raising three boys. She appreciated the discussion of suicide and brought up thoughts about alcoholism, heredity and Native Americans. We discussed how the author references a lot of information that we couldn’t understand without a previous knowledge base and how his admonition that we could easily look it up is not so easy given the proliferation of realistic-looking false news.
CB was glad to have read it. The author had an important message and she learned a lot of new information. She forwarded a link to a 2011 American Psychological Society recommendation for the retirement of American Indian mascots, which highlights how the author’s reference to this issue is both enduring and timely. She liked the characters but there were too many. It reminded her of our previous selection, Spoonbenders. She was particularly confused by the relationships surrounding Octavio. She felt that the author did better with male characters and that the females weren’t as clear. MF wondered if this was because of the cultural relationship between men and women. CB also questioned why the author made such a point of highlighting white violence against Native Americans and then had the violence at the PowWow be perpetrated by Native Americans? SO brought up the idea of self-hatred. We also discussed that we lump all Native Americans together, despite their different heritages, just as we lump other ethnicities together despite their differing personalities.
DC did not enjoy the book and, like many of us, wanted to have a more definitive ending. The author’s description of the PowWow made her feel as if she were there. His description of the near-death experiences seemed particularly realistic.
At the start of the meeting, I read the responses I had received from two members who couldn’t attend:
- KC had read the book last year for another book club and was particularly moved by the issues in the news today about the effect of COVID 19 on reservations – poor access to health facilities and doctors, restricted voting and distance for the Census, in addition to the Native American communities’ struggles with suicide, abuse of women, diabetes, alcoholism and obesity.
- MR wrote, “I tried reading There There but found it so depressing, I stopped after the second story. I reread your email where you said that the Dene and Opal stories were the best. Those were the only ones I read. I know life has not been fair to the Native American Community. But I want to read something good coming out of all those hard life experiences.”
I am certain that many of our group agree with both of these statements—even when we love the writing and the story, sometimes we want/need answers. CB said that the author must have hit every problem associated with Native Americans, which I believe highlights how overwhelming this complex narrative can be. The overall response to the novel was one of empathy and concern.
- Other works discussed:
- The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2012) by Sherman Alexie
- LaRose (2016) by Louise Erdrich
- Memoirs of a Geisha (1997) Arthur Golden
- News of the World (2017) by Paulette Jiles
- Round House (2012) by Louise Erdrich
- Spoonbenders (2017) by Daryl Gregory
 I saw this reference to polyphonic in a New York Times review and then subsequently in a few others. According to dictionary.com, polyphonic is an adjective “consisting of many voices or sounds.”
 “We’ve been defined by everyone else and continue to be slandered despite easy-to-look-up-on-the-internet facts about the realities of our histories and current state as a people.” Prologue page 7. There There by Tommy Orange.
Full resolution: https://www.apa.org/about/policy/mascots.pdf
I hadn’t planned to read this book but after reading the variety of reactions, I feel I should, and that I would enjoy it too. When you have many characters, it’s natural to be drawn to a few and not all, or perhaps not drawn to any because you’re to consider them as a group, and that might be lost if one or two became dear to you. Right now, as I read Annie Proulx’ Bark Skins, I grieve for a character who dies and then am caught up in the next generation or in learning his effect on someone. I’m interested too in the bit of surreal in the book–someone mentioned it. That is so very common. It occurs it Leslie Silko’s work and in Toni Morrison’s. The surreal sometimes weaves a personal experience into the mythology of the community, to make it part of the entire history. It’s unifying. Enjoyed this post very much. I like the identifying initials. It creates a stronger sense of group. Thanks.
RMP: Finally finished reading/listening to There There. Had time to start over again and this time I caught on to the meaning of the title. It was a very interesting read, but I think I have found that I am a very lazy reader. There were too many characters that I had to keep track of as described. It made me recall that years ago someone suggested I must read The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I gave up after the first book. After seeing the movie rendition I found I was then able to keep track of who was who; who was a dwarf and who was an elf and which hobbit was which. I then enjoyed reading the entire trilogy. Not too sure about the ending of There There. I suppose I would have liked the ending to have been less esoteric.