If stories are how we tell ourselves who we are, the Native American narrative was hijacked a long time ago, consigned to textbooks and dusty monuments, flattened into the feather-and-tomahawk cliché of sports-team logos and stoic chieftains on movie screens.
Like Louise Erdrich or Sherman Alexie — but also not like them at all, because of course every voice can only be its own — Tommy Orange drags Indian identity into the 21st century with raw, electrifying immediacy. (An enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, he uses a few terms interchangeably, but “Indian” is the one he defers to most.) His debut’s rotating cast of 12 characters includes mail carriers and mothers, gregarious weed dealers and shut-ins with master’s degrees in comparative lit; some are strangers, and some are already intertwined, even if they don’t know it yet.
What nearly all of them share is Orange’s Oakland hometown, some thread of blood heritage, and a plan to attend the upcoming Big Powwow. They’re also each deeply rooted in city life, born urbanites who know “the smell of gas and freshly wet concrete and burned rubber better than we do the smell of cedar or sage or even fry bread — which isn’t even traditional, like reservations aren’t traditional, but nothing is original, everything comes from something that came before, which was once nothing.”
Though their struggles aren’t necessarily new, they never feel less than real: Edwin Black shuts out the world with food and chat rooms; Dene Oxendene fights to honor a beloved late uncle by carrying on his oral-history project; Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield makes quiet sacrifices to raise the three young grandnephews her alcoholic older sister has left behind. If anything, there’s too much intrigue here to truly do justice to them all, but what remains is the fierce drive “to be recognized as a present-tense people, modern and relevant, alive.” B+