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Reviewed by:
  • There, There by Tommy Orange, and: Where the Dead Sit Talking by Brandon Hobson
  • Jeremy M. Carnes (bio)
Tommy Orange. There, There. Alfred Knopf, 2018. ISBN: 978-0-5255-2037-5. 294 pp.
Brandon Hobson. Where the Dead Sit Talking. Soho Press, 2018. ISBN: 978-1-6169-5887-9. 273 pp.

The legacies of settler colonialism continually mark the bodies of Indigenous peoples. As Tommy Orange writes, "[I]t's the way history lands on a face" (16). In the recent novels by Tommy Orange and Brandon Hobson, characters are marked by these settler-colonial legacies. There, There opens with Tony Loneman noting, "The drome first came to me in the mirror when I was six" (15). When he was told that he had fetal alcohol syndrome, six-year-old Loneman connected his face with that final syllable, "drome." Similarly, Hobson's Sequoyah was burned by hot grease at eleven, an accident at the hands of a mother dealing with alcoholism. As common as it is to blame mothers in these situations, Hobson, through Sequoyah's mother, gives voice to the problem at hand. After seeing his mother get sick when drunk, Sequoyah remarks, "Those people you're with are poisoning your drink." His mother responds, "It's normal. … [I]t's how it is for everyone" (3). As much as she is explaining the effects of alcohol to a son too young to understand, she is marking her alcoholism as itself inescapable. However, both Hobson and Orange couch issues of alcoholism and substance abuse within the larger narrative of settler-colonial violence.

Tommy Orange's There, There is multigenerational and multiperspectival in a vein similar to the novels of Louise Erdrich. Yet, as much as Orange tells the stories of the characters in his novel, he tells the story of the city of Oakland, one of many American cities where Native individuals were relocated at the hands of termination era policies of the 1950s. In fact, the title even comes from a famous Gertrude Stein quote about the city, "There is no there there," which Orange deconstructs through one of his characters, likening it to the Native dispossession of land and identity. Each of the lives around Oakland lead, throughout the novel, to the Big Oakland Powwow, though their paths there are varying and circuitous. From Edwin Black, who applies for an internship with the powwow at the urging of his mother in an effort to get him out of the house he has walled himself away in, to Dene Oxendene, who is following [End Page 237] in his uncle's footsteps to film the stories of Native individuals in the Oakland area, each character is given a rich and complex history that relies equally on their identity as Indigenous peoples and on their urban locales.

The twelve characters of There, There offer a robust and complex picture of life in Oakland, and Orange does not shy away from all of the problems that brings. The quotidian details of these lives include the hopefulness of love, the complexities of familial relationships, and the deep sorrow of loss. Each character is marked by their own story and their family's history, some of which center around Oakland and others that connect the city with various reservations across the country. We see the effects of the close-quarter living on Alcatraz Island during the occupation of the American Indian Movement on both Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield and her sister Jacquie Red Feather. We glimpse how poverty can affect a family's outlook on life, on personal worth. All the while, Orange makes clear that what connects these people is nothing more than the fact that they are living. In their own situations, the decisions they make might not be the best ones, but they are living. They might not treat those around them with the respect they deserve, but they are living. They might be giving and giving and giving so much that it is slowly killing them, but they are living. Orange's most pointed strength in this novel is his ability to engage our sympathy while also contemplating what actions can signify, both positively and negatively...


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pp. 237-240
Launched on MUSE
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