There, There – Tommy Orange (2018)

Wow. Just wow. This was a novel that makes you say just that word when you finally turn its last page. It’s that good. 

There, There, written as a first novel by Tommy Orange, a Cheyenne and Arapaho author, is a muscular narrative that weaves together the disparate stories of a large group of Native Americans (First Peoples) who all live in the same city of Oakland, CA. They don’t all know each other, but as the plot progresses, their lives overlap as they each plan to attend the annual pow wow in their community. 

(This is a read that sucks you in and won’t release you until the end of the narrative when you finally emerge, slightly battered and with the air sucked right out of you.)

It’s an “easy” read (in terms of the experience reading as smoothly as “a hot knife through butter” type of thing), but the story is high impact in terms of that it doesn’t shy away from the tough issues of life: depression, alcoholism, unemployment, fetal alcohol syndrome, hopelessness, not to mention life in poverty and as a marginalized indigenous person. 

You’re from a people who took and took and took and took. And from a people taken. You’re both and neither. In the bath, you’d stare at your brown arms against your white legs in the water and wonder what they were doing together on the same body, in the same bathtub.

So it sounds like a dreadfully depressing read, and although it addresses these issues, the plot introduces you to each of the characters one by one. You get to know these individuals as humans with lives and hopes of their own, and it’s easy enough to keep each character straight.

(That’s what I meant when I said you got sucked in to the book. I really felt as though I knew these people and cared how things worked out for them. I might not have agreed with some of their life choices, but I can’t deny that I would have chosen anything different than they did if I had been in their situations.) 

So, this book follows a group of characters, all individual but inter-related (at least by the end of the book) and who all decide to attend this community pow wow, an event where life undergoes a sudden and significant change for all. 

A seriously great read which will take your breath away. It’s not an easy read, but it is a good read.

(Plus it’s been recognized with a bunch of literary awards, so it’s not just me feeling the love for this one.) 

The Tortilla Curtain – T. C. Boyle (1995)

book377A reread from a few years back, this was actually just as good a read (if not better) the second time around. Boyle is an American writer who takes contemporary news issues (in this case, the issue of immigration) and then writes a narrative around that issue, usually raising a dilemma where there is no clear right and wrong. His plot lines are also unpredictable so I can never really guess the endings and that I love. That, combined with excellent writing skills and a large vocabulary, make Boyle a joy to read most of the time, so if you haven’t picked up one of his many novels or short stories, I highly recommend them. They’re almost a guaranteed good read.

This novel, The Tortilla Curtain, tells the story of two couples whose lives accidentally overlap with each other leading to a long chain of events which completely disrupt their lives. A young liberal California couple live in a mostly white community up in the hills just outside LA. Their lives are mostly smoothly run without any major hiccups until one day, the husband is driving his car and accidentally smashes into a Mexican immigrant who is here (along with his wife) as an undocumented citizen and who has no choice but to live in a rudimentary campsite down in the canyon that butts up against the backyard of the white couple. Such a collision leads to serious ramifications for both families, but Boyle writes the story in such a way that there is no obvious right or wrong. No one really does anything morally wrong, and both the couples just want similar goals: to live in a nice home and go to work.

It’s an intriguing premise that compares the Haves and the Have-Nots in today’s world. Through no fault of their own, the Mexican undocumented couple are striving for the same things that the privileged white couple are looking for, but when you are at rock bottom with few resources, how can you ever get out of your circumstances (especially if you can only live in the shadows)?

I could say more, but to tell you would be to ruin the plot and I don’t want to do that for you. Just know that this contemporary novel is a riveting read wherever you may stand on the touchy issue of immigration. It’s especially poignant when you realize how closely the two couples live, geographically speaking, and yet they are in worlds far away from each other. Boyle’s characters represent both sides of the immigration issue, and they are both written with equal parts compassion and criticism, both complicated with no clear solutions. It’s a fascinating read, especially in the light of the political chatter of building a wall between Mexico and the U.S. (ridiculous).

By showing the reader the rationale behind the actions of the characters, you can see the slippery slope that people may be on with regard to how they feel about things, especially when events are not theoretical but happen in your own backyard. Does that change how you view things?

An excellent read from T. C. Boyle and highly recommended.