About three quarters of the way through Tommy Orange’s There There, on the day of the culminating Big Oakland Pow Wow, it occurred to me that this plot structure was a bit like some potboilers I read way back in the 60s when I wanted to read grown-up books, so I borrowed a few of my Mom’s paperbacks. These novels followed a dozen or more characters, all leading their separate lives until the fateful day they all step onto the plane that will crash, the cruise ship that will flip over in a tidal wave, or the elevator that will plummet thirty floors and splat in the basement (yes, these later made great disaster flicks). The difference is those old books were melodramatic soap-opera-worthy tomes, but There Thereis a work of poetry and heart.
The book reads like a collection of interlocking short stories like Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squador Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club. A few Amazon reviews complain that connections between the characters can be confusing, and it’s true this is a valid concern. After reading the poignant ending, I have to tell you—don’t worry about it. You may be disoriented in spots, but it doesn’t matter. Just read and enjoy the language, the descriptions, the heartfelt stories.
Many of the stories are of boys and young men, yearning to find where they belong, both within and without their native culture. Many are driven by a desire to express thanks to the hardworking grandmothers who raised them by gifting them with a wad of cash. And thus the plot is set in motion.
The ending is ambivalent but beautiful, filled with expectations of what will happen next. It’s an unsettling finale, and I could imagine some readers might hope for a sequel or a mini-series to tie up loose ends. I enjoy the paradoxical power the author gives the reader to rely on her own imagination. It may be the best gift we receive now.