In Tommy Orange’s Latest, a Family Tree Grows from Severed Roots

In Tommy Orange’s Latest, a Family Tree Grows from Severed Roots


What happened in the apple orchard that so frightened the children? Something had been half-glimpsed or heard, something in the night. Rumors sparked but didn’t catch. The children kept their distance, and stayed close to the nearby school. Years passed. The school was shut down. The buildings stood. The orchard grew wild. And, one day, a tourist out walking in the area discovered a piece of bone—a child’s rib.

In 2021, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation began an investigation. Ground-penetrating radar detected what seemed to be evidence of some two hundred graves, presumably belonging to Native American children, in the land surrounding the Kamloops Indian Residential School, in British Columbia. A few weeks later, Cowessess First Nation reported signs of seven hundred and fifty-one graves around the Marieval Indian Residential School, in southern Saskatchewan. As the earth was probed, so were the wounds that were the legacy of residential schools, a cornerstone of colonial policy toward Native Americans across the continent for more than a century.

Hundreds of boarding schools operated in the United States and Canada with the aim of severing children’s spiritual and cultural ties and accelerating their assimilation. “Kill the Indian to save the man” was the guiding principle of the American Army captain Richard Pratt, who established the nation’s first such institution, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, at an old Army barracks in Pennsylvania. Children were forcibly removed from their communities, given new names, and made to convert to Christianity. (Many of the schools were run by the Catholic Church.) Native languages and spiritual practices were forbidden, and punishments could be brutal. St. Anne’s school, which operated until 1976, in Fort Albany First Nation, in Ontario, became notorious for shocking students in a homemade electric chair. Other schools used whips and cattle prods. Still others subjected the children to experiments, deliberately withholding food and medical care. In 2022, the U.S. Department of the Interior released an investigative report on the federal Indian boarding schools, which found “rampant physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.” Illness and malnourishment were widespread. Thousands of children, perhaps tens of thousands, disappeared. At the Carlisle Indian School, which operated for four decades, more than two hundred children died, some barely surviving their first month. The last North American residential school closed in 1998.

Wandering Stars,” the new novel by Tommy Orange, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, spans more than a century of Indigenous history, and holds at its center the Carlisle school and its long aftershocks in the lives of a survivor and his descendants. The story follows Orange’s acclaimed 2018 début, “There There,” and is part of a rush of recent work examining residential schools, spurred by the discoveries in the orchard. These include the documentary “Sugarcane,” which just received a directing award at Sundance; the latest season of the FX television show “Reservation Dogs”; and the podcast “Stolen: Surviving St. Michael’s,” which won a Pulitzer Prize last year. They join a deep and varied body of literature on the residential schools: memoirs, poetry, plays, young-adult fiction. If such accounts sought to preserve the stories of survivors and shatter the silences within families and within society, these new projects prickle with a nervy energy about what it means to handle this material at all, to push one’s fingers into the wounds. Are there silences worth protecting? What kinds of care are possible for the living and for the dead? Can the stories be told without turning them into entertainment—easily consumed, easily forgotten? What sort of action does a story make possible; what sort of healing?

Connie Walker, a Cree journalist and host of the “Stolen” podcast, knew that generations of her family had attended the schools, but it was only after the news broke about the graves at the Kamloops school that the reticence of family and friends thawed and they would sit for interviews. And, as we hear on the podcast, there was a caveat. Over coffee, a schoolmate of her father’s warns her, “This stuff that I’ve shared with you, that’s our knowledge. That’s ours. What we’ve learned. And we use that in a respectful way. This is what I call ‘Nehiyaw.’ This is what we have learned. We don’t profiteer from it. We take care of it, where we have to pass it down. But use this in a good way. Don’t play with this.”

Second novels can be gawky creatures, sulky and strained as they try to slink out of the shadows of their predecessors. Will the second novel follow the formula, or repudiate it and chance something new? Critics seem to lie lazily in wait, ready to punish either choice. More of the same, a pity. A misjudged departure, alas.

“Wandering Stars,” calmly and cannily, has it both ways. Orange brings back the characters from the first book, where narration duties rotated among a cast of voluble and charming junkies, Internet and food addicts, criminals and aspiring criminals, deadbeat dads, dying mothers. “There’s been a lot of reservation literature written,” Orange said when his first novel came out. “I wanted to have my characters struggle in the way that I struggled, and the way that I see other Native people struggle, with identity and with authenticity.” His characters in “There There” are resolutely contemporary. They live in cities, mostly Oakland—“We know the sound of the freeway better than we do rivers, the howl of distant trains better than wolf howls”—and their connections to lineage and community are often frayed. Many feel insufficiently Indigenous. Thomas Frank, whose mother, like Orange’s, is white, reflects, “You’re from a people who took and took and took and took. And from a people taken. You were both and neither.” To be Native American is less an identity to be claimed and proclaimed than to be tried on, furtively, after much Internet research.

In “There There,” Orange keeps his characters distinct and recognizable, but many of them share a particular gesture. Catch them unawares and you will find them looking in a mirror or just at the darkened screen of a computer. They like to hold their own gaze, if no one else’s. Many of them share the sentiments of another character, Tony Loneman: “Maybe I’m’a do something one day, and everybody’s gonna know about me. Maybe that’s when I’ll come to life. Maybe that’s when they’ll finally be able to look at me, because they’ll have to.” It’s the desire that fuels the novel, which works doggedly to maintain the reader’s attention with its pinwheeling narration; short, swift chapters; a gun produced toward the start of the book that goes off at the end; and that sickening undertow of dread. The reader can no more escape the book than one of its characters. “I wanted to create a fast-moving vehicle to drive somebody to some brutal truth,” Orange explained in an interview.

But it is a different tempo, a different ambition—almost a different writer—we encounter in “Wandering Stars.” Where “There There” shoots forward with a linear trajectory, the new novel maunders and meanders. Repetition is its organizing principle—the repetition of pain, addiction, injury. A linear story, it seems to argue, would be a lie. The narrative spirals around and envelops the previous book. “There There” ends with an attempted robbery leading to a shooting at a powwow, and one of the central characters, Orvil Red Feather, a high-school student, is shot and badly wounded. “Wandering Stars” casts back into the past, into the lineage of his family. The book begins with the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, the Army’s mass slaughter and mutilation of the Cheyenne and Arapaho people in Colorado Territory. A teen-ager, Jude Star, narrowly survives and is imprisoned. His son, Charles, is sent to the Carlisle school. We do not see what he suffers; he shares only the ghost of a memory, of being grabbed by the back of his neck so hard that his legs give out and he falls to the bathroom floor. He discovers laudanum—it is like spooning sunshine into his mouth. When the action picks up in the present, in the wake of the shooting, we see his descendant Orvil recovering from his wound and falling into the same thrall, finding his way to opiates. Orange is as good as Denis Johnson in describing addiction’s passage into joyless duty. But it’s not merely addiction that connects these men, these generations—so many are drawn to ritual (newly invented or otherwise), storytelling, music-making. “The goal for me and my band-mates was always the same,” Orvil says. “To try and make musical loops that wouldn’t sound or feel like loops because of the way they were built, that’s the way out of a loop. Every day is a loop. Life tries the same as we try with music. Every day is the sun rising, and the sun going down, and the sleep we must sleep. I even like sleep and dreaming now. Every day is life convincing us it’s not a loop. Addiction is that way too.”

Loops are self-enclosing. The reader can see what the characters cannot—what forced migration and residential schools have prevented them from seeing and sharing. The reader can see how the addictions and terrors, as well as the capacity for pleasure and endurance, echo across the Red Feather family. The characters, cordoned off, capable only of confusing and disappointing one another, sometimes sense that profound sources of knowledge and connection have been severed. “Everything that happens to a tribe happens to everyone in the tribe,” Opal, the matriarch of the family, recalls her mother telling her. “But then she said now that we’re so spread out, lost to each other, it’s not the same, except that it’s the same in our families, everything that happens to you once you make a family, it happens to all of you, because of love, and so love was a kind of curse.”

With this expansive canvas to fill, Orange can seem perpetually out of time and out of breath. A few key characters are quick smudges, scarcely more than their signifiers—addict, nonbinary, grandmother—when, in his previous book, each character felt like a world. They sound alike, prone to parroting self-help homilies. Orange resorts to cliffhangers to stitch sections together. (“He’d never stopped worrying about Lony. Everything seemed fine. Until it wasn’t.”) And he works his motifs into tatters—holes, spiders, flying, and, above all, stars (even the bullet shards in Orvil’s body are star-shaped and prone to wandering). The book appears to suffer from the same condition as its characters; it cannot see itself, cannot see that it need not hammer home every theme every time, that it speeds where it should saunter, tarries where we need to move. And yet it expands and expands—why not throw in a subplot about a suburban pill mill?—with such exuberance that even at its most sprawling and diffuse, I wondered: Is this novel flailing or dancing?



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About the Author: Tony Ramos

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