As snow began to fall on Main Street in Murphys on Nov. 27, local author Tommy Orange held a book signing and reading at Books on Main.
Orange’s first novel, “There There,” follows 12 characters from Native American communities as they eventually converge at the Big Oakland Powwow.
The book was a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, one of The New York Times’ 10 Best Books of the Year, and the winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award and other literary prizes. It has now been translated into 24 different languages.
In one of many glowing reviews, Egyptian-Canadian novelist and journalist Omar El Akkad wrote: “‘There There’ is a miraculous achievement, a book that wields ferocious honesty and originality in service of telling a story that needs to be told. This is a novel about what it means to inhabit a land both yours and stolen from you, to simultaneously contend with the weight of belonging and unbelonging. There is an organic power to this book – a revelatory, controlled chaos. Tommy Orange writes the way a storm makes landfall.”
It seemed fitting that Orange’s book signing should coincide with the biggest storm so far this year.
Orange recently moved to Murphys with his wife, Kateri, and their son, Felix, although the success of his novel has led him to spend much of his time outside of the area.
His extended family was in town for the week, and many family members attended the event. Every chair was filled as attendees filed in from the cold.
Kirsten Gomez recently opened Books on Main in the building that once housed Sustenance, which was also a bookstore.
“A big thank you to Tommy and Kat for sharing this day when you have family in town,” she said. “I can’t even put into words how much I appreciate it.”
Orange sat with his wife and parents in chairs placed in front of the fireplace.
“Welcome to my fireside chat,” he said, to laughter from the audience. “Thank you all for coming out.”
Orange read a chapter written from the perspective of a 12-year-old girl, Opal, who is taken by her mother to participate in the 1969-1971 occupation of Alcatraz Island by the Indians of All Tribes.
“It was more interesting to me to learn about a child during that time, rather than sort of the adult triumph narrative that I heard coming out of it, which is totally valid,” Orange said. “But I am the product of parents who were very much idealists from that time, and there’s a certain kind of fallout, emotional fallout, from that time, that’s not triumph. It’s like, ‘Why do we have to be dragged along through your ideals?’”
On the bus ride from East Oakland to a waiting speedboat, Opal asks her mother what they are doing.
“We’re going to be with our relatives, Indians of All Tribes. We’re going over to where they built that prison. Gonna start from the inside of the cell, which is where we are now, Indian people, that’s where they got us, even though they don’t make it seem like they got us there. We’re gonna work our way out from the inside with a spoon.”
Opal is confused by this answer, and wonders if the island will have monkeys, something she thinks all islands have.
Once on the island, Opal has a conversation with her teddy bear, Two Shoes, where they discuss what it means to be an Indian and what it means to be a bear.
“You know, we’re not so different. Both of us got our names from pig-brained men,” Two Shoes says. “Columbus called you Indians, for us it was Teddy Roosevelt’s fault.”
Opal asks Two Shoes how he knows about this.
“You gotta know about the history of your people. How you got to be here, that’s all based on what people done to get you here,” Two Shoes says. “Us bears, you Indians, we been through a lot. They tried to kill us. But then when you hear them tell it, they make history seem like one big heroic adventure across an empty forest.”
After the reading, the author took questions from the audience.
Orange said that he is interested in literature because it can build empathy for people from different walks of life.
“I think when it comes to novels, the work that can be done – it’s not the goal of every novelist – but what can be done is to build empathy for people outside of your experience by having them walk through a life in the pages of a novel. It can be done, and it can do work,” he said.
While he acknowledged that there has been progress, Orange said that there were serious problems with the way American history is taught in schools.
“In public schools, history is still being taught in a very sterilized, or just very wrong way,” he said.
A local schoolteacher asked Orange for advice teaching history in elementary school.
“You know how they build popsicle-stick missions to celebrate the missionary history? Maybe have a project where you write what the people who suffered from the missions being built, write those on the popsicle sticks, as like what would they have thought,” he said. “What would they have been thinking about all of what happened? And write those on the popsicle sticks, and still build the missionary popsicle-stick structures.”
Kateri said that they have friends come to their son’s school every year to do a presentation featuring powwow dancers.
“To me, it’s important because it brings it to like a flesh and blood, you know, and a smile and a story, and, you know, something that’s alive,” she said. “You want to be able to present this and have it be real, and I feel like now with the online stuff there’s a lot of good, you know, just like even videos.”
Orange recommended videos by an artist named Supaman.
“Without explaining anything, he is in full regalia, in feathers, but he’s breakdancing and he’s beatboxing and he’s rapping and he’s playing Native American flute,” he said. “And like for a young person to see – ‘Wow, there’s somebody alive and they’re doing all of these things’ – like this is doing so much work, and it happens in four minutes on Youtube.”
Following the question-and-answer session, attendees eagerly gathered around Orange to have their books signed.
Gomez opened the new bookstore on Oct. 4, fulfilling a lifelong dream. Shortly afterward, Orange came in to browse books. He was surprised that Gomez recognized him and sold his book.
“I said, ‘Well, I’ve only been open for three weeks and I can’t keep it in stock,’” Gomez said.
Orange asked if he could do a reading at the store, and Gomez said she would be delighted.
“What an important time it is, being Native American History Month, and the fact that it was on the eve of Thanksgiving, which, you know, is a holiday for us in general as Americans, but it’s something a bit different from the history we’ve been taught,” Gomez said.
Orange did the reading on short break from a rigorous book tour, Gomez said.
“On top of that he asked me if it would be OK if he and his wife made traditional Indian fry bread for the event,” she said. “His generosity, and his ability to be so down to earth and present, it was amazing.”
Gomez plans on hosting more book signings and readings and starting several free book clubs – including one that pairs high school students with younger children – after the first of the year.
“I have a lot of ideas; it’s just implementing them, of course, because I’ve only been open seven weeks,” she said.
For Gomez, running a bookstore is about much more than selling books.
“It’s more than just a bookstore and purchases; it’s about building those community ties and connecting people with literature however I can,” she said.