Forty minutes before author Tommy Orange was scheduled to speak about his book There There at the Free Library’s main branch during the 2020 One Book, One Philadelphia launch, eager readers had filled the Montgomery Auditorium and the overflow crowd was being directed to the foyer to watch on a screen. Philadelphia loves books.
A book for change?
Siobhan Reardon, the president and director of the Free Library, gave an impassioned speech about the ongoing effects of colonialization and voiced her hope that this One Book selection will create systemic change.
The ceremonial evening included a performance of a musical composition by Curtis composer Elise Arancio for violin, flute, clarinet, and double bass, which was inspired by the novel.
The program began with traditional Native American dancing, singing, and drumming presented by the Red Blanket Singers. Urie and Cory Ridgeway (Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape) and their children performed. The dance brought to mind There There character Orvil Red Feather, who tries to learn traditional Native American dance in order to understand his heritage.
“A privilege we don’t have”
After the dances, Orange read from his novel, choosing a passage where Orvil asks his guardian, Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, about his Cheyenne heritage. Opal puts him off, saying “Cheyenne way, we let you learn for yourselves.” When Orvil pushes further, she responds, “Learning about your heritage is a privilege—a privilege we don’t have.” Opal’s words sum up There There’s message.
Orange wants America to learn about the history of its Indigenous people and is frustrated by the egregious and mocking symbols of Native Americans in our society. When an audience member asked what he would do if he had a magic wand and could change the offensive names given to our national sports teams, Orange asked, “Just one or can I change them all?” If it were just one, he would change the Washington Redskins, he said.
He spoke of how the protesters at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation were attacked by guard dogs and shot with rubber bullets for peacefully demonstrating to protect the groundwater of their land. This occurred in 2017 as he was finishing his novel. Orange also bemoaned the fact that in spite of our easy access to information in 2020, many still accept popular myths about Indigenous peoples.
We should learn our history
Orange is droll and speaks with wry humor. His book introduces 12 characters of Indigenous blood who are trying to survive in a world that is hostile to them and to their heritage. They converge at a powwow in Oakland, California, and the result reflects a great deal of what is wrong in our society—but also leaves us with a glimmer of hope that, like the characters, we can change for the better.
If we call ourselves American and claim to love our country, we should learn our history. Tommy Orange’s There There makes a strong case for exposing the truths we have buried.
What, When, Where
There There by Tommy Orange. The Free Library of Philadelphia’s One Book, One Philadelphia program opened on January 22, 2020, at the Parkway Central Library, 1901 Vine St., Philadelphia. Find details on upcoming events, running through March 18, 2020, here.