Saturday, June 08, 2024

Tommy Orange - Wandering Stars

***Spoilers for both of Tommy Orange's books***

Tommy Orange's second novel Wandering Stars is closely linked to his first, There, There. Unfortunately I had not read the first one before starting Wandering Stars, and I missed out by doing so. Such are the consequences of me not keeping up with new writers. There, There finishes, with a mass shooting, and this forms the centre point of Wandering Stars, but not in terms of events, but as a pivot point for some of the central characters. This is a book about Native America, specifically the lives of working class, poor, Native Americans in urban areas - in this case, Oakland, California.

The book swirls around complex issues about poverty, drugs, guns and Native American identity. It's brilliantly told, not least because it starts in 1864 with the Sand Creek massacre, telling the generational story of a family of Native Americans who descend from one survivor. In doing so it tells how Native American children were wrested from their families and put in dire "boarding schools" to have the Indian civilised out of them, how they were imprisoned and how they fought to keep their identity and their humanity in the face of racism, government indifference and local authority repression. Orange, and his characters, repeatedly make the point that contemporary conditions for Native Americas are rooted in history.

One of the themes of the books is the importance of generational links and ties. The fact these are broken, or not readily known to key characters is crucial. The contemporary characters, who are the focus of the latter half of the book, and whose mother died from a drug related suicide, often feel out of context, lacking roots - despite their close family. Family itself takes on a wider meaning - it is much less about those who are your parents, and more about those who care for you.

After the shooting that leaves Orvil Red Feather with a bullet fragment in his body and an addiction to painkillers, his wider family, including his brothers Loother and Lony, protect and try to survive. They swirl around him, and his daze is not just drug addiction, it is the awareness that this is it. That the American health care system cannot properly care for them all, that there are no real jobs and that school is a meaningless place that trains you to "fly a desk". The schools might no longer force you to cut your hair, stop speaking your language and no longer wear traditional clothes, but they suck the life from you in every other way.

There's a kind of hope at the end of Wandering Stars, one that rests not with magical solutions, but with the solidarity of family and community that keeps people going. Its not the societal fix - nor the restitution that Native American communities desperately need from a capitalist system that still divides and rules, and drives people into poverty. But its a kind of individual hope. Tommy Orange peppers the book with references to Settler Colonialism and injustice. It reminded me that these sores are real, lasting and ongoing. The politics isn't a crude afterthought, but a living thread running through these all too real stories.

If my reading of Wandering Stars was undermined by not having read There, There, I would caution that it's probably not necessary, but likely to add meat to the novel. In a world coming to terms with Settler Colonialism and learning how to fight it, Tommy Orange is a welcome voice.

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