- - Thursday, August 9, 2018



By Tommy Orange

Knopf, $25.95, 294 pages

I recently read two very different and very moving books that deal with American Indians. The first is “A Call to Vision,” a photography book filled with gorgeous and dramatic pictures taken over the years by the Jesuit priest and photographer Don Doll, S.J. (Full disclosure: He is a friend since high school). Father Doll, who teaches photojournalism at Creighton University, has taken pictures all over the world, including on assignments from National Geographic, and much of his work, especially in the beginning of his career, features pictures of American Indians. The second book is the one at hand, Tommy Orange’s debut novel “There There.”

What differentiates the two works is that while Father Doll for the most part shows us Indians who live on reservations, Mr. Orange’s fiction gives the reader word portraits of the urban, not the “rez,” Indian, which the 2010 Census put at 71 percent of the total number of American Indians in the United States.

Set in and around Oakland, California, the focus in “There There” is on a pow wow, a huge traditional Indian gathering, to be held in that city, which draws many different Indians for many different reasons. It also deals with Oakland native Gertrude Stein’s overly-famous description of her home town: “There is no there there.” As Mr. Orange notes that was not a put-down but an observation written more in nostalgic sadness when the author returned after an absence of many decades and couldn’t even find the house in which she’d grown up in.

As Mr. Orange depicts so powerfully in simple, direct, and often quite beautiful language, when the Indians left the reservations, they did not leave behind their problems — alcohol, finding and keeping jobs, and an alarmingly high suicide rate.

The author explains that urban Indians ” feel at home walking in the shadow of a downtown building. We came to know the downtown Oakland Skyland better than we did any sacred mountain range, the redwoods in the Oakland hills better than any other deep wild forest. We know the sound of the freeway better than we do rivers, the howl of distant trains better than wolf howls.”

Among the featured players are Tony Longman, a big, strong and troubled 21-year-old born with fetal alcohol syndrome, which left him with a huge scar on his face. Tony’s grandmother tells him he is a medicine man, but he fears he’s just the opposite. “Maybe I’m’a do something one day, and everybody’s gonna know about me Maybe that’s when they’ll finally be able to look at me, because they’ll have to.”

Another young man, Dene Oxendene, wants to make movies. He likes his mother’s brother, Uncle Lucas, but Lucas, unlike his nephew, is a dreamer who is dying of alcoholism. He tells Dene, “I make movies in that I think of them, and sometimes write them down But, no, I don’t make movies, Nephew. I’ll probably never make one. What I do is, I help people with little parts of TV show and real movies. I hold a boom mike above the shot “

Dene has to appear before a panel of judges in order to get a grant to make a documentary about urban Indians. He rushes home to tell his mother that he got it, but before he can speak, he knows, from the look on her face, that she too has news, and hers is bad.

Another vivid portrait is that of Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield. She and her half-sister, Jacquie — same mother, different fathers — are doing their homework in the living room (with the TV on). When their mother walks through the front door, it’s obvious she’s been beaten by her latest husband. She tells the girls to pack their things because they are moving again, this time to Alcatraz. (In 1969, a group of 89 American Indians men, women and children, landed on the island in San Francisco Bay that had been closed since 1963. This was the third and most serious attempt to claim the federally-owned island for Indians, and it lasted until June 1970. Mr. Orange uses this location to show that the girls’ mother is in desperate need of free housing — and the protection of the others.)

The author keeps introducing characters until there are 12 sharply drawn Indians, all of whom plan to attend the Oakland pow wow. Not all have good intentions.

Tommy Orange, a keen observer of human nature, has created totally believable characters, whom he places within an equally plausible magnetic field. A writer to watch, Mr. Orange is a welcome addition to the ranks of young American writers, but, as his talent indicates, he need not limit his subject matter to American Indians.

John Greenya, a Washington writer and critic, is the author of “Gorsuch: The Judge Who Speaks For Himself” (Simon and Schuster, 2018).

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