An Unusual Perspective at the Talbot County Free Library
by Bill Peak
The novel There There, by Tommy Orange, is this year's One Maryland
One Book. One Maryland One Book is the Maryland Humanities program in
which people all across the state read the same book at the same time.
Tommy Orange is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes
of Oklahoma, but he was born and raised in Oakland, California. While
the story told in Orange's novel centers upon a disparate group of
Native Americans, Oakland itself ends up being one of the book's
primary characters. It was of Oakland that Gertrude Stein once
famously said, “There is no there there.” Hence the title.
The story told in There There is both simple and complex. We are
introduced, chapter by chapter, to a number of different, seemingly
unrelated individuals, all of whom, to one degree or another, are
Native American. But unlike One Maryland One Book's 2011 selection,
Sherman Alexie's excellent The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time
Indian, which was also about modern Native Americans, there are no
reservations in this novel.
The Native Americans in Tommy Orange's book are all, without
exception, what the author calls “Urban Indians.” Most of them live
in Oakland, and all of them are planning to attend an upcoming Powwow
at the Oakland Coliseum. It is toward the Powwow that the novel's
narrative force is directed. We see it coming. We expect dramatic
events to occur there. We are not disappointed.
What makes this apparently simple storyline complex is the way Orange
chooses to tell his tale. There are twelve primary characters in the
novel and ten more ancillary ones. Each of the novel's chapters
focuses on one of these primary characters. Most often the chapter is
told in the third person, but there are first person chapters as well.
Characters who narrate a chapter in the first person early in the book
are often encountered later in a chapter about them written in the
As you work your way through the book, you begin to realize that each
of these characters are in fact, in some way, related to another
character in the book. A father is rediscovered, a mother, a
daughter, a son, a lover.
But always the sense of order, of connection you might expect these
revelations to deliver, slips away just as you're beginning to get
comfortable with it—just as, I suppose, the sense of connection felt
by “Urban Indians,” the sense of a place and culture to call their
own, slips away from them.
I won't kid you, this is not a happy book. It is not an easy book. I
guess we really shouldn't require either from a people who have had so
much taken from them.
In 2019 Pen America awarded There There its prestigious
Pen/Hemingway Award, which is given annually to a full-length work of
fiction by an author who has not previously published such a work.
The prize is funded by Ernest Hemingway's family and the Ernest
Hemingway Foundation. I think the award's namesake would have been
pleased by the judges' 2019 decision, as he too wrote about Native
Americans in his Nick Adams stories.
On Monday, September 18, at 6:30 p.m., the Easton Book Club (which is
open to all) will meet to discuss There There. I'm looking forward
to hearing what everybody thinks of the book, and, if you're
interested, I'd love to see you there as well. If that date doesn't
work for you, there will be two more discussions of the book in the
Easton library, Thursday, September 28, at 6:00 p.m., and Thursday,
October 5, at 2:00 p.m., as well as a discussion in the St. Michaels
branch at 2:00 p.m. on Thursday, October 26.
Mary Pellicano, Talbot County Free Library's Board Treasurer, will
lead all four discussions. All Talbot County Free Library programs
are free and open to the public.