Monday, March 02, 2020

20. There There by Tommy Orange

I picked up this book last year on a recommendation from my sister and my mother and decided to read it now since we are having a lot of increased awareness about the reality for First Nations people in Canada with the blockades on the railroad tracks.  The wet'suwet'en people of British Columbia are blocking a pipeline that was rammed through their land in the usual completely fucked-up way the government and multi-national resource companies work.  Many other First Nations communities then blockaded railroad tracks in solidarity and it has put the federal government in a real dilemma.  If you can't tell, I am 100% in support of the First Nations.  Even if you want to be totally selfish, they are doing us a favour by putting the brakes on all this insance fossil fuels extraction that is destroying our planet.  This issue also brings to the forefront the incredible selfishness and racism in Canadian culture and it really pisses us off to be forced to see it for what it is.  Suddenly we can't be all smug and complacent because it turns out we are just as bad as our friends to the south.

Anyhow, I'll save that rant for when I resurrect Brique du Neige.  I hate to say it but I was somewhat disappointed in There There.  Once again, it is quite a good book but the hype is just insane.  I was getting ready to read a masterpiece based on the pullquotes from every major newspaper review and many famous writers.  I should know better, but nonetheless when people write "pure soaring beauty" and "a miraculous achievement" you can't help but get your hopes up.  I am very glad that the book is a huge success.  Tommy Orange seems like a really cool guy and I hope it opens the doors for more indigenous authors to get their stuff out there.  I'll take a thousand There Theres over one American Dirt and most of the mainstream "literary fiction" out there.  I just wish we could be objective and realistic about the actual text.

The story is about a lot of different American people of indigenous descent (he calls them "Indians" and they call themselves that, but I don't know how that works in the U.S. but us settlers don't use that term in Canada anymore and I suspect shouldn't down there either).  Most of them are in Oakland, but a few are making their way there.  The focus of the plot is that they are all coming to a big powwow that is going to be held in the Oakland Coliseum.  There are quite a few characters, so many that it has a cast of characters at the beginning.  I didn't actually need it until the very end when I got some of the heisting characters mixed up because each character is very distinct, very real.  The introductions and backstories of all these characters do get close to the hype.  They are all so brutal and sad, yet rich and interesting that it makes for that rare combination of compelling reading while being "educational" (for lack of a better word on my part).  Just one cool element is that some of the characters participated in the American Indian Movement takeover of Alcatraz Island, an incident mostly forgotten today but a big milestone in their struggle.  It was cool to read a fictional account (probably based on some reality) of what it was like to be a kid there.  These are all just really great stories about what it is like to be an indigenous person in America today and it is fucked up.  It was also cool that there is a lot of Oakland in this book, both its rougher past and the even more painful gentrification it is going through today.  Tommy Orange is clearly pissed at that.

Where the book did not totally succeed for me is around the powwow.  Everything is leading up to the powwow, including some young toughs who are going to heist it.  It became quite predictable that we were going to end in a violent tragedy with many of the main characters dying.  There lives were so difficult and challenging already, that I don't know if such an ending had much impact on me.  And it felt simplistic and it all ended too quickly. I would rather have read another hundred pages on the robbery going bad, but maybe on person getting killed and the rest of them continuing with the fallout and how it impacted their lives. 

It's funny me saying that, as I am the first to admit I am a slave to the narrative and want a good satisfying conclusion.  Here, I felt that Tommy Orange did such a good job building a rich reality, I would have rather it kept going, even if it never really ended with any kind of narrative conclusion.  Weirdly, it felt a lot like the ending of Game of Thrones to me.

Again, a good book and while I hate to use this term, I think it fairly applies here, an important book.  I hope it removes some ignorance in the world.

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