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    book review

    What is an Indian?

    image for Orange on Sunday june 17 arts topic.
    David Vogin for the boston globe

    In a long poem called “Sunstone,” the Mexican writer Octavio Paz examines what it is “to touch our roots, to rescue ourselves,/ to rescue the inheritance stolen from us/ by the thieves of life centuries ago.’’ 

    These lines capture what’s at work in Tommy Orange’s speeding 16-wheeler of a debut novel, “There There.’’ Orange, a Cheyenne-Arapaho, the son of a white mother and an Indian father, has written a saga chorused by a dozen characters bound for a powwow at the Coliseum in Oakland, Calif. Some will compete in a Native dance competition; others are drawn by a sense of obligation; still others have plotted a dark scheme to pay a drug debt. All feel both tied to their culture and estranged from it. 

    The book opens with a searing prologue, an essay that grounds us in a history that’s been frequently obscured. Mutilation and massacres, betrayal and death at the hands of whites, stereotypes cemented across generations of pop culture. “[T]hey fired their guns into the air in victory and the strays flew out into the nothingness of histories written wrong and meant to be forgotten. Stray bullets and consequences are landing on our unsuspecting bodies even now.” So the stage and stakes are set, and those bullets carry their course through all of the book to its devastating conclusion.

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    We’re introduced to the main characters — young, old, male, female; each chapter told from an individual voice. The features of Tony Loneman’s face are spread wide, a result of being bathed in booze in the womb and a symptom of fetal alcohol syndrome, which street-smart Tony refers to as “the Drome.” Dene Oxendene, an aspiring filmmaker, wants to document the stories of Native people living in Oakland. Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield drives a mail truck and takes care of her half-sister Jacquie’s three grandsons after their heroin-addict mother, Jamie, shoots herself between the eyes. Orvil Red Feather is one of those boys, and he’s preparing to dance in regalia for the first time at the powwow, learning the steps from YouTube videos. The lives overlap, are woven together, by blood, by experience, by geography, by history, by the fates they’re moving toward. 

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    Again and again, Orange — whose prose is electric, alive, who holds sorrow and joy at once in the palm of his sentences — puts his characters in front of reflective surfaces: the screens of turned-off TVs, mirrors, metal on a fence throwing back a distorted fun-house reflection. They look at themselves, trying to figure out who they are, what they are, who and where they come from. With Orvil, looking at himself dressed in regalia, “[m]irrors have always been a problem . . . He doesn’t look the way he hoped he would. . . . And yet there’s something there . . . he can almost see it. He’s waiting for something true to appear before him . . . the only way to be an Indian in this world is to look and act like an Indian. To be or not be Indian depends on it.” 

    Orange’s characters struggle to unite dual identities: the modern everyday urban dweller with cellphones and JavaScript and 3-D printed handguns with the traditions and history of an ancient people, their regalia, feathers, and medicine boxes. The book looks at how people can understand themselves when the thieves of life didn’t just steal life, but took control of their narrative. 

    An emphasis on stories and the act of storytelling rolls through the chapters. “[W]hat we could do had everything to do with being able to understand where we came from, what happened to our people, and how to honor them by living right, by telling our stories,” Opal’s mother explains to her. “When you hear stories from people like you, you feel less alone,” Dene tells Orvil. “[A]ll we got right now are reservation stories, and [lousy] versions from outdated history textbooks.” 

    This is also a novel of pain, of the trauma that’s inherited and the pain that’s passed along in the blood. And it’s a novel about how to dull the pain — with alcohol, drugs, the Internet — and how to heal it — with stories, with song. Thomas Frank, who shows up drunk to work, beats a massive drum, practicing for the powwow: “This is what it sounded like to make it through these hundreds of American years, to sing through them. This was the sound of pain forgetting itself in song.” 

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    The title of this stunning, symphonic work comes from a line of Gertrude Stein’s about Oakland: “There is no there there.” The song “There There” by Radiohead is mentioned as well: “Just ’cause you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there.” There there are also words of comfort. Another way of saying, it’s going to be OK. There there acknowledges that sometimes words fail. It’s a way of saying: I recognize the pain you’re in. A way of saying: I’m with you here right now. There there is a way of saying: It’s possible to heal.

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    Nina MacLaughlin is the author of “Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter.” She can be reached at nmaclaughlin@gmail.com.