Book Report: Novel tackles what it means to be Native
Everybody Reads, Multnomah County's annual citywide reading event, has begun and the book selection is Tommy Orange's debut novel, "There There" ($25.95, Vintage Books), a story set in Oakland, California, about urban Native Americans.
Extra copies are available now at all neighborhood libraries, and people are encouraged to pass the book on when they're done. "There There" also can be downloaded for free from the library catalogue.
The monthlong push behind the book culminates when Literary Arts presents Orange at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 5, at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Tickets ($15) are available through Literary Arts and http://www.portland5.com.
Named as one of the best books of the year by The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, the Boston Globe and others, "There There" also was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Orange, 38, is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma and an MFA graduate of American Indian Arts.
At 292 pages, "There There" is a powerful novel. The stories are told from the point of view of 12 characters, all Native. Their lives intersect, cross and converge as each person makes plans to attend the Big Oakland Powwow at the end of the book.
Among the characters are Jacquie Red Feather, a substance abuse counselor six days sober; Tony Loneman, a 22-year-old born with fetal alcohol syndrome who calls his misshapen face the Drome; and Orvil Red Feather, a 14-year-old boy aching to learn about his heritage.
His characters struggle with complicated histories, poverty, addiction and suicide. When Orvil Red Feather wants to know about his heritage and ask his aunt for stories, she says there will come a time for that and "don't ever let anyone tell you what being Indian means. Too many of us died to even get a little bit of us here, right now, right in this kitchen. You're Indian because you're Indian because your Indian."
Readers know this won't be a feel-good book in spite of the title. Orange begins with the Indian head test pattern, the image that hovered over patterns similar to a rifle scope and appeared on American TV screens nightly at the end of broadcasting hours until the late 1970s.
Orange frames his character's stories in the prologue with the land deals turned massacres that most Americans celebrate as Thanksgiving. As "There There" takes shape, it's easy to see that it will be unflinching and real.
Orange reminds us that there's the history we tell ourselves, and the one we are taught in school. And there are more difficult histories and truths that lie outside of our perspective, beyond our frame of reference. These truths also are called stories, and stories are how his characters tell about their lives.
As shared in the book, a first-time documentary filmmaker, Dene Oxendene, gets a small grant to collect Native stories from the streets of Oakland. He tells a young Native who shows up why he's doing it.
"When you hear stories from people like you, you feel less alone. When you feel less alone and like you have a community of people behind you, alongside you, I believe you can have a better life," he said.
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