Novelist Tommy Orange, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, has been one of the biggest success stories in recent American literature.
His debut novel, “There There” (Knopf, 2018), is an ensemble story that encompasses the lives of a handful of Native characters, each with individual reasons to attend a large powwow at the Oakland Coliseum.
The book has either won, or been nominated for, many of the biggest prizes in literature. Among others, the book won the PEN/Hemingway award for Distinguished New Novel, was longlisted for the 2018 National Book Award for Fiction, and was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. Now, “There There” has been selected for the 2019 Griz Read at the University of Montana.
The purpose of the Griz Read is to use one thought-provoking book — selected annually by a committee of staff, faculty and students from nominations submitted from all over campus — to provide new students with a common reading experience in which to facilitate discussion. Past Griz Read selections have been works not only in fiction, but also travel writing, memoir, science, and nature writing.
Erin Saldin is assistant professor of English and Honors and the chair of the Griz Read committee. She says that typically all the students who are in either freshman seminar courses or intro to honors courses will read this common book, which the organization then does its best to provide.
"Sometimes we have been able to provide students copies of the book, and sometimes we have required students to buy them,” Saldin says. “This year, we were able to secure a gift from Grizzly Riders International, a group of University of Montana supporters, to purchase books for the students."
When "There There" was announced as this year's Griz Read, however, its selection generated so much excitement that more courses decided to teach the book than were initially assumed. The initial demand for books was met through funds provided by the Vice Provost for Student Success.
Tommy Orange earned an MFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts. He is a 2014 MacDowell Fellow and a 2016 Writing by Writers Fellow. He was born and raised in Oakland, California, and currently lives in Angels Camp, California.
“There There,” his first novel, is a story told from the first person points of view of 12 different narrators, whose stories weave and connect to each other in subtle ways before culminating all together at the Big Oakland Powwow. This might seem an ungainly approach to unfurl a narrative — there are many names and relationships to keep track of — but Orange manages to pull it off.
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He weaves humor, pathos, love and trauma in such a way that the reader is compelled to keep turning pages, experiencing a fast-paced narrative that makes the book difficult to put down.
Most interesting is that Orange almost exclusively tells his story from the perspective of “urban” Indians. These are people of many tribes all living side by side in an urban setting. In this case, it is Oakland, a city that is essentially a character itself in Orange’s familiar hands. This setting isn’t typical for Native writers. It is also a highlight of the book.
Still, Orange’s narrative choice, mostly in its use of so many characters and threads in the story, was a concern for Saldin when the book was first proposed for the Griz Read. She decided to teach “There There” in one of her spring courses in hopes to develop a curriculum for teaching the book that would be useful once fall arrived and other classes started teaching and discussing it.
“I wasn't actually sure how students would react (to the book),” Saldin says. “But then the students said it was the best book they had read all semester.”
Saldin says her students loved the style of writing. They loved the frenetic energy the switching back and forth of perspective lends to the book, and the questions that Orange’s choices in narrative structure bring up as a way to tell a story. Students were also excited to see a novel that portrays the experience of urban American Indians, particularly in Oakland, California.
“Oakland, especially I think for Montana students, is a really surprising location to see these issues (the experience of being Indian) explored,” Saldin says. “It offers students the opportunity to think about landscape, and the meaning of landscape, in a different way than maybe we are accustomed to here in Montana. I think that was a particularly interesting aspect for students to explore.”
“There There” is as important a book to arrive on the American literary scene as any in recent memory. To see it so widely embraced, and continuing to be, is thrilling. Not just for people who enjoy a good story told well, but for the thousands and thousands of scattered Indian people who don’t often see their lives accurately portrayed in popular fiction.
"In my 10 years at the University of Montana,” Saldin says, “I haven't seen a book take hold across campus the way this one has. It's been really exciting, because I love this book.”