by Tommy Orange
reviewed by Seana Graham
I happened to start reading this book on my way home to Santa Cruz from the greater Bay Area. My sister had dropped me off at a BART station in Berkeley and I was making my way south via Oakland and San Francisco. Within a few minutes I was reading about a character who was making his way on BART through Oakland. When the train was delayed underground, a young Latino man across the aisle said that he’d just been given the book, and asked me what I thought of it. I showed him that I hadn’t gotten far yet, but although I warned him that the prologue was somewhat harsh, I told him I thought he’d like it.
Tommy Orange writes about an assortment of Native American characters whose lives center around or at least pass through Oakland, California. Gertrude Stein famously wrote of this place from her childhood, “There is no there there.” For a long time I heard the expression as many have, taking it as a dismissal of Oakland, a claim that the city doesn’t stack up to the greater or at least more mythologized San Francisco just across the bay, or perhaps to her later home, Paris. But I think it was my sister who explained recently, and which I found corroborated in the Citylab article linked to below, that Stein wrote this because she couldn’t find any traces of her childhood home when she returned to Oakland many years later. She was expressing not contempt but homesickness and nostalgia for a place that no longer existed in the same way.
I think Tommy Orange gains his title from this second or perhaps I should say this original meaning. But Orange is describing a there that is in fact still there. He tells his story through the lives and memories of an assortment of Indian people, many of whom have deep though sometimes unsuspected connections to each other. Most also have some connection to Oakland, but all will gather there by the story’s end. All in some way or another are trying to wrest back their own identities after the many ways that they and the generations before them had been abused by the dominant culture. They want to proclaim their existence right here and right now, but sometimes they also need clues from the past to help them understand themselves as a part of a people.
I read this book for a book group discussion, and for some of our members, the idea that there were Indians living in contemporary Oakland was pretty mind blowing. But as Orange describes in his introduction, this was pretty much the point—the Indian Relocation Act, he explains, was designed to make native peoples disappear into the mainstream, to erase their own culture, to make that all seem like just part of the colorful past. But bringing Indians to the cities didn’t lead to that outcome.
We came to know the downtown Oakland skyline 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, we know the smell of gas and freshly wet concrete and burned rubber better than we do the smell of sage or cedar or even frybread, which isn’t traditional, like reservations aren’t traditional, but nothing is original, everything comes from something that came before, which was once nothing. Everything is new and doomed. We ride buses, trains and cars across, over, and under concrete plains. Being Indian has never been about returning to the land. The land is everywhere or nowhere.
And that’s just the beginning of this informative, thought-provoking and sometimes lyrical work.
Seana Graham is the book review editor at Escape Into Life. She has also reviewed for the biography website Simply Charly. She attempts to keep up with her various blogs, including Confessions of Ignorance, where she tries to learn a little bit more about the many things she does not know. You can find links to many of her short stories at her blog Story Dump. She has co-authored a trivia book about her native Southern California. Santa Cruz Noir, a recent title from Akashic Press, features a story of hers about the city in which she currently resides.