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The novel "Wandering Stars" by Tommy Orange is a powerful and moving exploration of the lasting effects of colonial trauma. It weaves a harrowing but ultimately healing story.

The novel “Wandering Stars” by Tommy Orange is a powerful and moving exploration of the lasting effects of colonial trauma. It weaves a harrowing but ultimately healing story.

Tommy Orange, a Californian of Cheyenne and Arapaho descent, has previously spoken of his desire to write fiction about Native Americans living in the here and now, not a romanticised past. As one character in his new novel has it: “Everyone only thinks we’re from the past, but then we’re here, but they don’t know we’re still here, so… it’s like we’re in the future. Like time travellers would feel.”

The first novel from Orange, titled “There There,” is presented as a collection of oral accounts from various Native and mixed-race characters. The story follows these characters leading up to a powwow that is violently interrupted by a troubled addict wielding a 3D-printed gun. In Orange’s newest novel, which is both a prequel and a sequel, the aftermath of the attack is told from the perspective of Orvil Red Feather, a young college student who was a victim of the attack. But before delving into Orvil’s story, the novel takes us through six generations of his family history, starting with his great-great-great-great-grandfather, Jude Star. Jude was a survivor of the 1864 massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho villagers at Sand Creek, an event that was sanctioned by Theodore Roosevelt despite its “objectionable details,” as noted by the epigraph.

Unable to be removed due to the danger it poses, the bullet shard embedded in Orvil’s body takes on a symbolic meaning in the novel, which delves into the lasting effects of trauma over the course of several decades. The stories of survivors carry the shadow of violence, both physical and psychological, such as extermination and assimilation. While the novel portrays colonial atrocities clearly, it also emphasizes the moral confusion that pervades post-colonial life. The pressure to survive and the all-consuming desperation of addiction are recurring themes, fuelled by various substances like stolen whisky and self-made drugs over the course of the book’s 150-year time frame. The characters often find themselves in dire situations, making poor choices due to their unfortunate circumstances, representing the complex intentions of the author, Orange. Jude’s story reaches a grim climax as he becomes a gunman, ultimately succumbing to the erasure of his identity.

The narrative’s weight comes more from the collective experiences rather than individual stories. Orange skillfully creates momentum by leaving out certain details, where no single character dominates the spotlight. Love interests are introduced and quickly fade out, characters die without much elaboration. Orange also touches on the Native American occupation of Alcatraz in 1969, and switches to the perspective of Pratt, a soldier turned teacher who enforced an assimilation policy in his boarding school. Along with this historical context, Orange also includes modern elements such as references to Street Fighter II, online messaging, and underground raves.

Native American deer hide painting of the Sand Creek massacre.

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The novel, while structurally indirect, also includes moments of straightforwardness, such as when one character is expected to learn about her heritage after her adoptive mother’s death. This moment highlights the unique sense of inheritance that comes with being the child or grandchild of a massacre. There is a discussion about the appropriate use of the term “Indian” and the author, Orange, makes a clear ethical statement through one character’s thoughts: “It would be beneficial if the rest of society understood that many of us have lost our culture and language due to the systematic erasure of our people, and the continuous dehumanization and misrepresentation in the media and education system.”

You can feel that Orange is in a secure position as a creator in the sections approaching the present day. This is when the sharp dialogue begins to shape the story, fueled by the arguments of brothers who are both grieving and facing difficult circumstances. Ultimately, the paths they take – one becomes a self-destructive runaway, while the other crashes a borrowed car while under the influence – are about finding healing, rather than causing more destruction. This same theme can also be seen in Wandering Stars, which is surprising considering the most distressing moments of the novel blend historical realism with gritty social commentary.

Source: theguardian.com