There There by Tommy Orange, on the Urban Native American Experience

The debut novel and our Book Club event

On November 7th the Books Between Friends book club spent the evening on a mini road trip. We had dinner as a group at the Boxcar Grille and then carpooled to Lenoir-Rhyne University to hear Tommy Orange speak of his new and wildly popular debut novel There There, as a part of the college-hosted Visiting Writer Series 2019–2020.

It was raining when we first arrived for the 7:00 pm event at Lenoir-Rhyne, and though I am from the area I’d never been to the campus. It was much bigger than I’d expected, being a graduate of the quaint Catawba College of Salisbury.

Rich, our library branch manager and book club organizer dropped us off at the door and we scurried through the chilly rain into the Belk Centrum auditorium. The turn-out was pretty good and we all waited in the lobby for a meeting to finish up in the auditorium room. When the doors opened, we made our way inside, brochures in hand, and found seats to settle in for the “show.”

A lot of author events I have been to have consisted of an author, a microphone, a long talk about “why I wrote this book” followed by audience questions. This event unfolded much differently. For about 20 minutes prior to the student introduction of the author, a 2-man band entertained us with modern-Native melodies. 

The band name was Chris Ferree and Medicine Crow. They are a local Native American rock and Americana music band. The Native American flute playing, melancholic-yet-hope-filled lyrics, and soft acoustic guitar music were perfect mood-setters for the event. Songs of the plains, mountains, buffalo, and freedom filled the auditorium, an unexpected but pleasant surprise for attendees. The pain and suffering of a people displaced from their lands were interlaced with a yearning for the earth, for nature, and for freedom.

Several book clubs traveled in for the event including one from Asheville, and ours. One Native American gentleman drove up from Atlanta, Georgia to hear Tommy Orange speak. His grandfather had been the first Native American man to graduate from Lenoir-Rhyne and is in the Hall of Fame for playing football at the college.

Tommy Orange was introduced by a student of the college who gave her account of reading There There in one of her college classes, and how the book opened her eyes to a culture she had thought she understood. I shared the same sentiment while reading There There.

Tommy Orange opened with a few words about the discomfort of public speaking — a big part of his life now that his book has gained popularity. His speaking voice was gentle, relatable, and left me with the feeling that he has so much to say, so much to offer in his writing. He began by reading from the interlude section of There There and to hear the story unfold in the author’s voice was truly special.

Tommy Orange is a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma. He received his MFA in American Indian Arts, is a 2014 MacDowell Fellow, and a 2016 Writing by Writers Fellow. He also garnered notoriety with a 2017 L.A. Times article entitled, “Thanksgiving is a Tradition. It’s Also a Lie.”

There There is a book about the modern-day experiences of urban Native Americans living in Oakland California, where the author grew up. Told through a dozen characters, Orange builds the narrative in intertwining pieces as the reader works to get to know each character and eventually begin putting the pieces together for a dramatic end. 

The story is raw, honest, and reads with in a bit of a “stream of consciousness,” shuffled way mirroring the disconnection of the Natives from both their original lands and the reservations from where they’ve been told stories throughout their life. Many of the characters struggle with identity and addictions as they navigate a world they aren’t sure how they fit into. 

The twelve characters make their individual ways for various reasons to the Big Oakland Powwow where they are united in a violent, unspeakable act. Other topics dealt with in the novel are substance abuse, alcoholism, and suicide. The struggle for the characters with their own identity and what it means to be a Native runs throughout the narrative.

The rest of the event featured Orange and another Native woman in two armchairs on the stage in a Q & A conversational fashion. A book signing followed.

Our group left before the book signing to beat the weather and get back before it got too late so I did not get the opportunity to speak with Mr. Orange. I am happy to hear that he is already working on a follow-up novel. I hope that we will cover that novel as well in our group.

Orange spoke insightfully about the lives of Native Americans in contemporary society. He had an understated charisma about him and so much of what he said was an excellent companion to the material we had read going in. We’re looking forward to discussing his novel at our November 19th meeting. Our book club’s selections are sort of all over the board. We read both fiction and nonfiction titles and don’t really settle on one particular genre. I like to keep our reading choices fresh by challenging participants with a variety of topics and types of books rather than falling into a rut by only doing mainstream authors or only feel-good stories. — — Rich Haunton, Branch Manager

Books Between Friends has been a beautiful social and intellectual experiene for me since I joined a little over a year ago. If your local library hosts a book club I encourage you to join it and participate. If your town hosts author events like the one we attended, I also encourage you to get involved. Meeting the authors adds such a deepened reading experience for readers.

There There is a book worth taking the time to read. I assure you, your eyes will be opened to the Native American experience in new ways.

Christina Ward 💗 is a poet, writer, avid reader, and columnist for the ONE newspaper, where portions of this article will appear next week.

You may follow some of her work at Fiddleheads & Floss Poetry. Her debut poetry selection will be out soon on Amazon.

%d bloggers like this: