Tommy Orange’s ‘There There’ Sequel Is a Towering Achievement

WANDERING STARS, by Tommy Orange

Tommy Orange triumphantly returns with “Wandering Stars,” the follow-up to his groundbreaking 2018 debut, “There There.” Part prequel, part sequel, yet wholly standing on its own, Orange’s novel follows the descendants of Jude Star, a Cheyenne survivor of the 1864 Sand Creek massacre, for more than a century and a half, before catching up with the present day and landing in the aftermath of the first book’s harrowing climax.

The novel begins with an address on the American government’s multipronged campaign to eliminate the original “inhabitants of these American lands.” One such campaign came with the slogan “Kill the Indian, Save the Man,” Orange tells us, referring to the boarding schools where Indigenous children were forced to suffer all manners of torture in the name of assimilation.

But, Orange continues, “all the Indian children who were ever Indian children never stopped being Indian children … whose Indian children went on to have Indian children.” In spite of the calculated terror, and the incalculable loss, the government’s campaign failed and could only ever fail. This framing is part of what’s so special about this book: As we move through generations of the family — as Stars become Bear Shields, who become Red Feathers — and even as knowledge of their histories and customs becomes muddled or lost to time and tragedy, Jude Star’s lineage, and that of his people, remains unbroken.

Still, when the novel enters the 21st century, members of the Red Feather family lament society’s apparent refusal to see Native Americans as existing in the present day. While watching an Avengers movie, Lony, the youngest of the Red Feather brothers, imagines what powers a Native American superhero would have. He makes a list that includes “Can Fly (because feathers)” and “Invisibility (because no one knows we’re still here).”

Orangeexpands his focus on identity to consider the fraught relationship between race and blood. We hear from a high school student named Sean Price, an adoptee raised by white parents, who has just received the results of his DNA test. “He’d already assumed he was part Black,” Orange writes. “There was no mistaking the look you got if you were assumed Black or part Black in a white community — whether you were or were not all or part.”

Blackness, according to Sean, lies in others’ assumptions and becomes most pressingly about how one is perceived and treated. The point is emphasized when Sean and another adoptee friend make a habit of riding the city bus from the Oakland hills down into predominantly Black neighborhoods, where they are unbothered, and where they can “disappear completely” from the white gaze. But given his upbringing, “Sean didn’t feel he had the right to belong to any of what it might mean to be Black from Oakland.”

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