In trying to expand my reading horizons, I realized that I had read very little from Native American authors. I have, of course, read a few by Louise Erdrich (most recently Future Home of the Living God), who is well established as respected as a female writer of Native American descent. But that’s pretty much all I could name off the top of my head, which is sad. As someone born and raised in the United States I was taught and knew, but didn’t really understand or fully comprehend, the history of the country in relation to the first people and nations. At least not until going to grad school (as a reminder, I studied public health) and truly got to see the staggering inequalities in health outcomes (and pretty much all related measures of “successful” living) faced by Native populations in America. And that’s really unacceptable. Though perhaps I cannot change how long it took me, or most people who have that moment of education, to get there, I can at least do a better job with continuing to broaden my own understanding. And to spread that as far as my reach is able. To that end, as always for me: reading. Conveniently, Tommy Orange’s debut novel just recently burst onto the scene and was, truly, exactly the book I needed to pick up with that goal in mind.
“…shit’s broken but we can’t just leave it broken.”
I usually give a little plot synopsis here, but I am really having a hard time writing one for this book. I mean technically there is a plot. The primary story line is around the Big Oakland Powwow. All of our characters are somehow connected with the powwow – from helping plan it to being the emcee to competing in the dance competition to having a booth. And then there’s a few more characters. Those that, for various reasons, have been pulled into a plan to commit an act of violence at said powwow. So that story thread pulls us along, but at the same time, that’s not really what the book is about at all. It’s a character driven story. Exploratory and connective. And though by the end, things culminate in an intense and terrible few hours and you’re on the edge of your seat to read what will happen to these characters (simultaneously crying and yelling at them while reading), that still doesn’t paint the whole picture of the power behind this novel.
This is a story told from multiple perspectives. Some sections are long, some short. Some character’s perspectives repeat a couple times, others maybe once. They are told from different literary points of view, from different points in time, with different language and outlook. But they are all stories of “modern” Native Americans. Mutigenerational and fluid, we get snapshots of so many different kinds of stories, but all share the same common thread: the current day reality for those who share Native American ancestry. Each character is flawed in some, or multiple, ways. Some more deeply than others. But they are all real, and they all work to open your eyes to how things truly are, to expose the generational struggles faced by this group of people, tracing back to the original mistreatment, marginalization, massacres as their land and homes were overtaken by European (and then American) “settlers.”
This novel moves past the assumptions and stereotypes about how Native Americans are seen or what they should be, and shows what they are in an uncompromising and diversely representative way. Many different types of stories are told here and many different themes addressed. The breadth of reality is richly portrayed through looks at themes like poverty, self-discovery, addition (and recovery), abuse, adoption, cultural pride and exploration, cultural confusion and loss, acceptance and rejection, family and loyalty, family and betrayal, unemployment, mental illness and the ever-present being “nonwhite” but also not identifiably specifically something else. These are all issues faced by many, regardless of ancestry, but here they are fantastically framed by that common theme, which adds an extra layer of depth to the circumstances. And the way they weave together by the end is a great series of interconnections that, as you start to recognize them as the reader, give you a very fulfilled reading experience.
There are a couple other things that I really liked and want to point out but that don’t fit anywhere else. First, the way the book is written seems to me to have paralleled one of the characters’ stories in particular. That particular character has gotten a grant to collect stories from city dwelling Native Americans in order to paint a picture of their lives and experiences…and to potentially create a film art piece from them. Essentially, this book seems to me to be the written version of that – the only difference being that Orange’s vignettes all somehow connect together in the end, while one can assume that would not naturally happen for our book character’s collected tales. Regardless, it’s very cool. And I do wonder how much that particular POV is inspired by Orange’s own experiences and feelings. Though in fact, one must consider how much of all of these stories are personal experiences for him, or people close to him. The emotion with which it is written definitely implies that kind of deeper investment and passion. It’s a small thing, but as we get closer to the violent end, I love the way the POV changes/sections get short and staccato, bouncing around quickly to mirror the way the plot is moving at the point. And last, the title. I read the section in the book it was named for, of course, but also more from Orange himself (in interviews) on the reasons, and I just…think it’s perfect.
This book has so much to unpack related to intergenerational trauma, as well as some amazing philosophical explorations of what it means to be Native American today. It’s both so sad, and so insightful. And it really makes you think. What does make you who you are? What makes a people who they are? And when you’ve had your culture and history stripped away and retold and refashioned without your input, and all you have left is blood, how can you identify with anything without feeling lost or like a pretender? It’s a lot to think about, regarding identity and authenticity, but it’s imperative to stay open to it, even when it’s difficult. And there is no holding back or euphemism to make it easier on the reader. But that’s what make it so impactful and important. To that, I love that this book starts with (and has as a short interlude) essays by the author that more or less detail, to a rightful extremity, the history of prejudice and loss faced by Native Americans in the United States. This introduction sets the scene with anger and clarity for a story that should make you angry(ier) as you gain your own clarity.
That, in the author’s own words, this book was written to address the fact that there is no modern and urban Native American representation in publishing and literature is a crime. But Orange took the responsibility for filling that void seriously and has created something viscerally profound and formidable with this first novel. I would definitely recommend this book!
This is one that I absolutely recommend reading, obviously. But, if you aren’t convinced yet, check out some of these amazing and intense passages that I pulled:
“If you were fortunate enough to be born into a family whose ancestors directly benefited from genocide and/or slavery, maybe you think the more you don’t know, the more innocent you can stay, which is a good incentive to not find out, to not look too deep, to walk carefully around the sleeping tiger. Look no further than your last name. Follow it back and you might find your line paved with gold, or beset with traps.”
“We’ve been defined by everyone else and continue to be slandered despite easy-to-look-up-on-the-internet facts about the realities of our histories and current state as a people. We have the sad, defeated Indian silhouette, and the heads rolling down temple stairs, we have it in our heads, Kevin Costner saving us, John Wayne’s six-shooter slaying us, an Italian guy named Iron Eyes Cody playing our parts in movies. We have the litter-mourning, tear-ridden Indian in the commercial (also Iron Eyes Cody), and the sink-tossing, crazy Indian who was the narrator in the novel, the voice of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. We have all the logos and mascots. The copy of a copy of the image of an Indian in a textbook. All the way from the top of Canada, the top of Alaska, down to the bottom of South America, Indians were removed, then reduced to a feathered image. Our heads are on flags, jerseys, and coins. Our heads were on the penny first, of course, the Indian cent, and then on the buffalo nickel, both before we could even vote as a people—which, like the truth of what happened in history all over the world, and like all that spilled blood from slaughter, are now out of circulation.”
“The wound that was made when white people came and took all that they took has never healed. An unattended wound gets infected. Becomes a new kind of wound like the history of what actually happened became a new kind history. All these stories that we haven’t been telling all this time, that we haven’t been listening to, are just part of what we need to heal. Not that we’re broken. And don’t make the mistake of calling us resilient. To not have been destroyed, to not have given up, to have survived, is no badge of honor. Would you call an attempted murder victim resilient?”
“It’s important he dress like an Indian, dance like an Indian, even if it is an act, even if he feels like a fraud the whole time, because the only way to be Indian in this world is to look and act like an Indian. To be or not to be Indian depends on it.”
“Some of us got this feeling stuck inside, all the time, like we’ve done something wrong. Like we ourselves are something wrong. Like who we are deep inside, that thing we want to name but can’t, it’s like we’re afraid we’ll be punished for it.”
“When you hear stories from people like you, you feel less alone. When you feel less alone, and like you have a community of people behind you, alongside you, I believe you can live a better life.”
“…I got a little hope in my chest. Not that it’s gonna get better. Just that it’s gonna change. Sometimes that’s all there is.”