There There – Tommy Orange

Rating: 4/5

What an insanely powerful book. When we think of Native Americans, we tend to think of 19th-century Cherokees on horseback and shooting arrows at bison, or perhaps something vague about moccasins and canoes and totem poles, maybe with colorful, feathered headdresses thrown in – all hopelessly dated stereotypes. Orange wrote this book to address this exact issue after noticing there’s next to nothing about modern-day Native American life in art/literature/general culture, and wanted to share what their lives really look like while putting it in the context of a novel. And the result is just devastating.

I actually thought this was non-fiction for a good portion of the book – that he’d interviewed all the people he writes about – because the characters are that realistic. The book switches POV each chapter, which wasn’t as jarring as expected because each character has a really interesting backstory. They all seem like separate stories at first, but their threads come together at the very end, which is foreshadowed throughout the book but is still incredibly emotional and shocking. I read the entire thing on my flight to London over winter break and had a hard time maintaining some semblance of keeping it together at the ending, since there were so many people around!

Most of the characters struggle with some issue in their lives, whether it be alcoholism, PTSD, teenage motherhood, addiction, etc. At first, I naively thought Orange was just writing about a particular subset of Native Americans – but then realized that that wasn’t the case at all. He didn’t create an “interesting” group of characters for the purpose of his book, he really was accurately portraying the modern-day Native American experience. Native Americans as a demographic struggle with such issues at much higher rates than others. Their poverty rate is twice the national average, the suicide rate is 3x the national average, and nearly 15% of them meet the criteria for substance use disorder, to mention just a few examples. There There made me much more aware of the terrible challenges they continue to face. It’s an eye-opening novel.

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