Review: There There // A Masterpiece and Sucker Punch In One

Review by Mary Kat

  • Rating: 😻😻😻😻😻/5
  • Recommends for: Fans of beautiful writing and those interested in learning more about Native American experiences
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There There by Tommy Orange is a masterpiece and a sucker punch in one. To be straight up, this book had me wrecked. Shook up. Fighting back tears more than once. I agree with the hype — this book is an awesome addition to the bookshelf and added a lot to my understanding of contemporary and urban Native Americans. I also love that the book doesn’t offer one answer — in fact, it aggressively avoids a simple answer or stereotype by giving us multiple perspectives. These perspectives are often conflicting, but each given their fair shake. The book is original, powerful, and necessary, and I loved it.

SPOILERS AHEAD! Continue at your own risk.

All The Best

Why did this book have me so shook? Well, it’s not just because the history is so painful (which it is). Or just because the writing is outstanding (which, again, it is). The real punch to the gut is the character cast. They are so well fleshed out, incredibly so, such that they felt completely real to me by the end. Too real, in fact, hence the tears when the violence strikes in the climax. My favorite characters were the Red Feather family members. Opal and Jacquie as kids felt so vivid, especially because I’ve visited Alcatraz Island where they’re squatting (check out my photos of Alcatraz throughout!). When their mother died, that was tear attack #1. Later on, I fell in love with the sons Orvil, Lonny, and Loother. Again, their sibling relationship felt so real, and I loved that idea of Orvil secretly teaching himself dance and anxiously awaiting his public debut at the Powwow. He’s searching for his history, ancestry, and family, a search that I think we can all relate to on some level. A search for the feeling of connection. His shooting while searching for this feeling? Tear attack #2, easy.

When I think about what I want in a book, the most important factors to me are the writing style and the characters. Okay, fine, also the plot. (Duh, you might be thinking, that’s all anyone cares about. Well, fair enough, you ain’t wrong.) There There is outstanding on all of those fronts. I already told you about characters (see: tears above), but now let me say how lyrical the writing is. Orange has an absolutely beautiful writing style. But he can also turn his words fiercely ugly, for example while describing Native American history. Poetic and effective simultaneously. I was also impressed with his diversity of tone and style to create the voice in each of his character. Each chapter tells a story from a different character’s perspective, and his writing reflects the change in voice. From the first pages of the book to the end, I kept returning to the same thought: Damn, this guy can write.

If I hadn’t already been a goner because of the characters or the writing (which I was), the nail in the coffin would have been the plot. Throughout the book, we’re speeding along to the Big Oakland Powwow. This sounded like a festival with dancing, food, and merch, all for local Native Americans. Unfortunately, from the very first chapter, we know this is bad news. A couple of the characters are planning a robbery at the Powwow, so the closer we come to the Powwow, the more we feel the threat of impending violence.

Up for Debate

When the violence arrives, it smashes and destroys everything in its wake. The chaos is palpable through the pages, and everyone is in danger. When Orvil was hit, I was done. The tears that I’d been holding back, well, the floodgates were open and I couldn’t hold back any longer. Although I was sure he was done by the end of his chapter, a couple chapters later we get another perspective — his family’s as they’re rushing him to the hospital and then later waiting for news from the doctor. In Opal’s last moments of her chapter, she counts the swings of the hospital door. The door swings 8 times, and then Opal sighs and listens to the doctor. We aren’t told the doc’s word, so this is left open to interpretation, but I believe Orvil lived. In Opal’s earlier chapter, we learn she’s got hardcore superstition, such that she’s counting nonstop. Sounded very much like OCD, although that isn’t brought up in the book. Anyway, Opal reports that some numbers are evil numbers, others are good numbers — 4 and 8 best of all. With the 8 swings of that hospital door, I believe this bodes good news for Orvil.

Also up for debate: SPIDER LEGS. Orvil has “spider legs” coming out of a bump on his leg, and apparently this is a family trait. I try to avoid reading reviews until I’ve written down my own ideas, so I have no idea how others interpreted this but am very interested to hear your thoughts. As for myself, I’m still sorting this out, without much success. Because the spider legs appear days before the Powwow, they serve as a bad omen for violence to come. They also give the story a bit of mystical/legendary quality, which is fitting with some of the Native American mythology included in other chapters. As for why Orvil seemed to inherit this from Opal? I suppose this is a comment about how our family’s history and trauma is passed down through generations. But honestly, I’m still spit balling and would love to hear your thoughts.


Must read because of the beautiful writing, fresh perspectives, outstanding characters, and powerful storytelling.

What Next?

  • Ceremony by Leslie Silko is a really interesting, surreal book about a Pueblo man with PTSD. This book can get super trippy, which I loved. I recommend this novel because it’s another awesome read on a Native American experience, and it’s made even more interesting by the interweaving of mysticism and realism.

Reading With A Side Of…

This lovely orange drank is an Aperol Spritz. 3 parts Prosecco + 2 parts Aperol + 1 part club soda = an awesome summer fizzy drink.

3 thoughts on “Review: There There // A Masterpiece and Sucker Punch In One

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