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In this post we’ll be discussing Part 1: Remain (pages 13-78) of There There by Tommy Orange. Thank you for continuing to be a part of our book club!

Each chapter of the book is narrated by one of the twelve featured characters—Part 1 was four chapters long and we were introduced to the voices and viewpoints of Tony Loneman, Dene Oxendene, Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, and Edwin Black.

Which character of these four were you most drawn to?

I think my answer would be Tony or Dene and I’m not exactly sure why yet.

Tony reminds me of many a student I have known and not because of what he calls the “Drome” but more because of what he represents—so much potential. And I love how his grandmother Maxine is working to instill in him the There. She has him read to her before bed—even though he reads slow, as he says—including books by her favorite author Louis Erdich.

Tony is a drug dealer and gives most of his money from selling to Maxine who is a nurse but is possibly retired (in any case it seems she can’t physically work anymore). Tony narrates, “now she needs a nurse, but she can’t afford one even with the money she gets from Social Security” (20)—you work your whole life and then can’t afford to retire in peace and basic comfort…

Several passages address Tony’s face and also his reflection and this seems to be a theme in later chapters, too, so I think this is something the reader should be paying attention to. When we look at Tony as a reader, what do we see? Is There there? I think it is most definitely.

 

Tony opens the book and Dene follows in chapter two. Dene, who is in middle school, introduces us to the title through both a song by Radiohead and the Gertrude Stein quote about Oakland which is the setting for the book.

Song lyrics:

In pitch dark
I go walking in your landscape
Broken branches
Trip me as I speak
Just cause you feel it
Doesn’t mean it’s there.

Dene has a “tag” he uses across his neighborhood/community—Lens. He says he chose it because “Each place he tagged would be like a place he could look out from, imagine people looking at his tag.”

If I were teaching this book to students I would probably ask, “what would your tag be?”—so if you comment with nothing else, that would be a great question to answer and why! 🙂

Two passages I particularly drew from with Dene—

  1. when he talks about his uncle dying from alcoholism
  2. his interaction with the person waiting in line ahead of him at the grant proposal

On page 34 he finds out his uncle Lucas, an aspiring filmmaker, is dying. Dene’s mother Norma says Lucas has been drinking too much for too long and his liver is ruined.

Dene: “But why wasn’t something done when it could have been done?”

 

Norma: “There are some things we can’t control, some people we can’t help.”

 

Dene: “He’s your brother.”

 

“[…] He’s been doing this most of his life.”

 

“Why?”

 

“I don’t know.”

 

“What?”

 

“I don’t know.”

My dad could attest to the fact that I had this exact conversation with him—several times—over the years regarding his childhood best friend who was a member of our family.

This exact scenario played out, too, when my dad’s brother died of alcoholism when I was in elementary school. I can still remember my mom getting the call from Texas (my dad was not home) that my uncle had died. He struggled most of his life. That memory is seared in my brain. I can still hear my mom’s voice, feel every emotion, see her face. I could describe the room we were in with exacting detail if asked to do so. And I still ask myself why all the time, but I don’t ask my parents anymore.

The entire section of this chapter that lays out the premise for the title of the book is awesome. I love when authors just put it out there—no games, no gimmicks, no trying to be clever so that only a select few can understand something.

“He probably used the [Gertrude Stein] quote at dinner parties and made other people like him feel good about taking over neighborhoods they wouldn’t have had the guts to drive through ten years ago”—Dene on how he feels about the guy waiting in line ahead of him at the grant proposal.

All I’m going to say about highlighting this quote is I have felt this exact way since becoming a candidate.

I have stood in rooms with people who command authority over the rural voice or what it’s like to be a working person who have no goddamn idea and they always always make me doubt myself and feel small.

One thing I am confused about slightly is the timeline for this chapter. Is Dene age 13 in the present day? Or is he remembering being 13 (the time when his uncle died)? I have not read past Part 1 so I’m wondering if we’re going to follow him for a while leading up to the pow-wow and he’s actually older…

Opal’s mother tells her the “history” of her people on page 51. It’s a quote to remember.

“They tried to kill us. But when you hear them tell it, they make history seem like one big heroic adventure across an empty forest.”

One last part I wanted to mention—and hopefully someone else will still be thinking about this as well—is on page 72 in Edwin Black’s chapter. His mom jokes about Edwin’s theory of humans being ‘merged with the machines.’

“I’d recently made the mistake of telling her about singularity. About how it was an eventuality, an inevitability, that we’d end up merging with artificial intelligence. Once we saw that it was superior, once it asserted itself as superior, we would need to adapt, to merge so as not to be swallowed, taken over.”

I am guessing some readers would interpret this the way his mom does—that Edwin’s addiction is doing this exact thing to him. But I read it differently. I think Orange is making a comment here. There may not be a There for Native and Indigenous people in America anymore, but in the long arc of time they weren’t the first and they won’t be the last. I feel like Orange might be saying, you think it can’t happen to you? Empires fall all the time. Native people may not have their There—because it was stolen by blood—but their survival still reflects the There. Not everyone survives. I think our current pandemic reality proves a lot of what we call America continues to be built on nothing but the blood and sweat of human toil.

Next week we discuss Part 2! Let us know your thoughts about Part 1 in the comments — which character were you most drawn to, what would your your “tag” be, how did you interpret Edwin’s singularity passage?

Thank you for continuing to be part of Team Ruby!