There There is a book I’ve heard people talking about for the past year, and it really is amazing. The novel has a huge cast of characters, especially for a short book. The characters are all First Nations people (they, like lots of First Nations people in the US, usually refer to themselves as Indians and of course people get to pick what they are called; it’s just that as a settler-descended white Canadian it feels weird to type “Indian” when that term is sometimes seen as pejorative in this country), mostly living in contemporary urban settings in and around Oakland, California. They are all kinds of people — those fiercely proud of their native heritage and those completely cut off from it; powwow dancers and activists; criminals and addicts; people who want to build something and people who want to tear something down. And none of those categories is discrete, because these are real, complex, flesh-and-blood people.
The pace of the book seems dizzying at first — you meet character after character in short chapters, and at first these characters seem to have little or nothing to do with each other and the book reads more like a collection of loosely linked short stories — linked, perhaps, by the experience of being Native American in today’s America and, more specifically, in today’s Oakland. But soon you start to see links and connections, see how some of these characters’ stories are woven together. Some connections are direct — members of an estranged extended family who may not even realize they are related — while others are indirect. The most important connection, it turns out, is that all these people are going to the same event: a powwow held in a local arena. They’re all going for different reasons, but when the trajectories of their journeys begin to converge, the pace of the story picks up. The multiple points of view continue, but the chapters get shorter, the camera shifting from one character to another as we see how events play out, leading to a climax that’s shattering in every sense.
There There is a beautiful piece of writing (and a master class in how to handle multiple points of view), but it’s also the kind of writing by Native American/Indian/First Nations writers that more settler-descended people like me need to read. It’s one thing to toss around phrases like “intergenerational trauma” but another to see so vividly and viscerally depicted the impact of generations of dispossession and discrimination. This was an important, overpowering, almost overwhelming piece of fiction.