In the early pages of There There, it seems as if Orange’s hopping and skipping around through the perspectives of various Native Americans living in Oakland—Urban Indians, as they often call themselves—is highlighting disparate and isolated points of view. As the story deepens, however, it becomes clear that all of the characters are interconnected—by their occupations, by chance, and even by blood. As the story builds towards a giant powwow, during which nearly all of his characters find themselves collected in the Oakland Coliseum, Orange argues that not only are people connected in ways they often can’t begin to imagine—but also that the connections which ripple through the world have the power to change lives for the better.
The complicated connections between the characters of There, There at times seem too coincidental to be real. Through the various twists and turns of the narrative which both retroactively and in real time reveal unlikely connections between coworkers, strangers, and family members, Tommy Orange makes a larger comment on how interconnected not just the Native community but the world more largely is—and highlights the deeper importance of old adages that instruct people to love their neighbors and respect strangers as they love and respect themselves. Jacquie Red Feather, who gives birth to a child conceived on Alcatraz with the slightly older Harvey, gives that child up for adoption and never sees Harvey again. The child, Blue, is adopted by wealthy white Oakland residents and grows up in the lap of luxury. She later goes on to take a job at the Oakland Indian Center in hopes of reconnecting with her heritage, where she meets Edwin Black—who has just reconnected with the father he never knew through Facebook, a man whose name is Harvey. Blue and Edwin, unlikely siblings due to the sharp differences in their age and demeanors, nonetheless feel an uncanny sense of familiarity and connection with one another. Blue knows the name of her birth mother, and when Edwin meets Harvey, Harvey introduces him to Jacquie. Edwin introduces Blue to the woman, who instantly realizes that the young man she’s gotten to know as her intern and coworker is actually her half-brother. This group of characters represents the power of redemption through human connection. Harvey and Jacquie have failed the children they each, in their own ways, gave up; but in reconnecting with them, even through a coincidence, there is the chance for true connection and healing.
Tony Loneman and Calvin Johnson are both roped into a dangerous group of drug dealers run by Octavio Gomez, who is at first glance an intimidating and frightening figure—but who is later revealed to be suffering his own pain and trauma related to the death of his father, mother, brother, and cousin, and the loss of a cousin as well. Octavio’s other cousin, Daniel, operates a drone which he uses to survey the streets and landmarks of Oakland and which Edwin’s mother’s boyfriend, Bill Davis—a janitor at the Oakland Coliseum—tries to strike down out of the air. This grouping of characters demonstrates the idea that people are interconnected in surprising ways—often without even knowing it. Tony and Calvin’s involvement in Octavio’s scheme seems to be about a callous act of robbery, but in fact Octavio is trying to get the money for his family. Octavio doesn’t have reservations about robbing the powwow because in spite of having indigenous South American ancestry, he doesn’t feel a connection to the Native community—and yet he fails to see that he is indeed connected to the Oakland Native community in many roundabout yet meaningful ways.
Orvil Red Feather’s life also proves that people are interconnected, and that such interconnectedness is often for the better. Orvil’s great-aunt Opal was once in love with a young man named Lucas, who left with barely a word to go live in Los Angeles. Lucas is also Dene Oxendene’s uncle, and Lucas’s return to Oakland near the end of his life allowed him to leave Dene his camera and pass on his tribal regalia to Opal, who later bequeaths the regalia unto Orvil. This collection of characters represents the ways in which the objects, stories, and legacies people pass down to their children, relatives, or family friends can have an unforeseeable—and remarkable—impact on the future, and influence connections they could never have possibly imagined.
At one point in the novel, when Harvey remarks upon the coincidence of running into Jacquie Red Feather at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in New Mexico, and states that there must be a reason for their meeting, Jacquie replies sarcastically that the “reason” is that the “Indian world is small.” Though her statement is no doubt true—and though characters like Blue and Dene Oxendene have made their life’s work the excavation and reinforcement of such a small community rife with so many unlikely connections—there is a mystical feeling to these instances of chance and coincidence which lends the novel a purposeful, fated quality. In making connections between his characters—many of whom are isolated, miserable, and in need of some small miracles—Orange suggests that the power to lift one another up regardless of personal connection should be a cornerstone of any community; people should treat those they meet as if they could be their long-lost daughter, a grieving friend-of-a-friend in need, or the relative of a deceased sweetheart, whether or not these unlikely connections actually turn out to be true.
Interconnectedness, Coincidence, and Chance ThemeTracker
Interconnectedness, Coincidence, and Chance Quotes in There There
Getting us to cities was supposed to be the final, necessary step in our assimilation, absorption, erasure, the completion of a five-hundred-year-old genocidal campaign. But the city made us new, and we made it ours. We didn’t get lost amid the sprawl of tall buildings, the stream of anonymous masses, the ceaseless din of traffic. We found one another, started up Indian Centers, brought out our families and powwows, our dances, our songs, our beadwork.
Jacquie kneeled in front of the minifridge. In her head she heard her mom say, “The spider's web is a home and a trap.” And even though she never really knew what her mom meant by it, she’d been making it make sense over the years, giving it more meaning than her mom probably ever intended. In this case Jacquie was the spider, and the minifridge was the web. Home was to drink. To drink was the trap. Or something like that. The point was Do not open the fridge. And she didn’t.
“There’s gotta be some reason for all this. That we would meet like this,” Harvey said, holding the elevator by putting his arm across the threshold.
“The reason is we’re both fuckups and the Indian world is small.”
But his leg. The lump that’s been in his leg for as long as he can remember, as of late it’s been itching. He hasn’t been able to stop scratching it.
We all came to the Big Oakland Powwow for different reasons. The messy, dangling strands of our lives got pulled into a braid—tied to the back of everything we'd been doing all along to get us here. We’ve been coming from miles. And we’ve been coming for years, generations, lifetimes, layered in prayer and handwoven regalia, beaded and sewn together, feathered, braided, blessed, and cursed.
Something about it will make sense. The bullets have been coming from miles. Years. Their sound will break the water in our bodies, tear sound itself, rip our lives in half. The tragedy of it all will be unspeakable, the fact we’ve been fighting for decades to be recognized as a present-tense people, modern and relevant, alive, only to die in the grass wearing feathers.
Opal pulled three spider legs out of her leg the Sunday afternoon before she and Jacquie left the home, the house, the man they’d been left with after their mom left this world. There’d recently been blood from her first moon. Both the menstrual blood and the spider legs had made her feel the same kind of shame. Something was in her that came out, that seemed so creaturely, so grotesque yet magical, that the only readily available emotion she had for both occasions was shame, which led to secrecy in both cases.
He crawls out through the black curtains. For a second the brightness of the day blinds him. He rubs his eyes and sees across from him something that doesn’t make any sense for more than one reason. Calvin Johnson, from the powwow committee, is firing a white gun at a guy on the ground, and two other guys are shooting on his left and right. One of them is in regalia. Dene gets on his stomach. He should have stayed under his collapsed booth.