Review: There There

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Review for "There There" by Tommy Orange (2018)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Here’s a fact about me: whenever I see a book by a Native American author other than Sherman Alexie winning loads of critical praise, I’m going to read it. Tommy Orange’s There There is one such book–much praise, reviews in major publications. I reserved it months back and finally jumped on it when my copy came up on reserve at the library. I read this in about 4 sittings over a 4 day period.

There There is a unique narrative in that it explores a group that has never really been given a voice–urban Native Americans. In this novel, the characters come from various tribes and live in and around the city of Oakland, California. Orange writes about their search for identity and explores the ‘old’ problems that surround this community (alcoholism, domestic violence), as well as modern ones (cultural appropriation, loss of traditions, etc). The author uses an ensemble approach, telling the interconnected stories of various attendees headed to a local powwow.

Unfortunately though, this is a book loaded with problems. For one, there are about a dozen different perspectives in this book. Even though the same characters are visited over and over again leading up to the powwow, I felt there were far too many perspectives, too many voices here to keep up with. I kept having to look back at other sections to remember who was talking, and at about 50% into the book I gave up trying to connect all of the dots. You never really get to know any of these people before their 8-10 pages is over and it’s on again to another person. I would have much rather the author focused on less people and fully fleshed out his characters more.

Also, I didn’t feel the writing was anything to write home about. The dialogue was bland, the descriptions too stripped back. A lot of telling, as my creative writing teachers would say, and not enough showing. In many places, a person’s entire life was contained within less than 5 paragraphs. It seemed too rushed, like a false start. In other places the writing was mad awkward, like the two times we’re told that a character has his head “on a swivel.” (*eyeroll*)

The ending is anti-climatic and the book simply just…ends. It’s weird. We’re never told what happens to any of the characters. I just turned a page near the end, and that was it.

Strangely, the prologue to this book was quite beautiful. It’s a thoughtful meditation about the attempted genocide of indigenous people, told historically and figuratively through the motif of the infamous Indian-head test tv pattern. I was kinda disappointed when this part was over, ’cause I could have read this for another 50 pages. It’s never OK when the prologue is better than the story, but I’ll digress here.

As much as I didn’t really care for this book, I won’t go lower than 4 stars. There is a story here, somewhere in the rubble of all of this. I respect what Tommy Orange is attempting to do by giving us an alternate perspective of Native American life that’s outside of the images of dusty reservations and old stereotypes. I just don’t think this was executed well. This is his first book, however, so the structural issues are forgivable.

I definitely recommend this book, perhaps you’ll like it more than I did.

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Review: Heart Berries

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Review for "Heart Berries: A Memoir" by Terese Mailhot (2018)
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Let me start this review off by saying the Terese Mailhot is a sensational writer. “Heart Berries” is a raw, personal account of Mailhot’s life and experiences as a First Nations woman who has witnessed abuse, poverty, addiction, as well as generations of family members who have passed through Canada’s brutal residential school system, which separated indigenous children from their families and, in many cases, subjected them to sexual and physical abuse. Mailhot talks about this and a myriad of other topics in her writing, often taking on the form of missives to former lovers.

There were definitely moments in this book where I found myself underlining passages in my Kindle, saying “yes!” But then these flashes of brilliance would signal the moment when the magic would end, because moments later the author would switch time, location, and subject without warning. I am a bit confused with the classification of this book as a memoir, because the selections together as a whole seemed terribly disjointed and didn’t tell a cohesive story. The lack of cohesion put up a barrier for me–I wanted to understand her and the writing was certainly drawing me in, but the lack of a solid story here made this something I couldn’t access.

I almost feel bad for giving this two stars, because this book has gotten glowing reviews in the mainstream press. I definitely like the way the author writes, but I just don’t think this is my kinda book.

Review: Where the Dead Sit Talking

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Review for “Where the Dead Sit Talking” by Brandon Hobson (2018)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Set in late 1980’s rural Oklahoma, “Where the Dead Sit Talking” is the sad, dark tale of a 15-year-old Native American teenager named Sequoyah, sent to live with a foster family after his mother’s imprisonment. From the outset of the novel, it is evident that Sequoyah carries many emotional scars, having dealt with his mother’s alcoholism and abuse in previous detention settings.

Harold and Agnes Troutt are also the foster parents of two other children: George, a younger, also emotionally damaged boy (his behavior strongly suggests that he’s possibly on the autism spectrum), and Rosemary, an older Native American girl with whom Sequoyah becomes obsessed. They bond over their shared heritage (he is Cherokee, she is Kiowa), smoking cigarettes in her bedroom at night and sharing their deepest secrets with each other. Their relationship is equal parts platonic and disturbing, with Sequoyah’s violent fantasies and obsessive thoughts of Rosemary taking up much of the novel.

This book has a very dark, brooding tone all throughout. There is no happy ending or ‘triumph’ by the main character. What is here is an unsettling silence at the heart of the story that betrays the notion that even though everything seems ok on the surface, it’s apparent that it isn’t. Despite the Troutts kindness and “good” intentions, they are powerless to stop the human catastrophe that simmers beneath the surface of their home. I think the author does a great job of depicting how even the most well-intentioned acts of goodness can be misdirected and to the complete detriment of the individual.

I highly recommend this book.