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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 third.

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.

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