Book Review: Wandering Stars

Book Review: Wandering Stars

May I be so bold? It’s a no, thank you.

Here’s the rub: Native voices and Native perspectives are really important to me, have been for my entire life and I consider them to be woefully underrepresented. So, there is no way I am going to tell you not to read Wandering Stars by Tommy Orange when it is a Native-voiced novel getting so much attention. But I didn’t like it very much and I didn’t think it was very good. After having some (smaller) qualms with Orange’s first book, There There, and then waiting for him to improve before his second, I was let down. It was a step in the wrong direction. Which doesn’t mean he won’t write something amazing in the future, but I am not fond of continuing to give people the benefit of the doubt when I have yet to see their potential realized, even after two novels. And I’m tiring of other readers trusting the gatekeepers. Either it was a good book or it wasn’t, no matter who wrote it. This one, not in several ways.

In There There, we followed a number of members of the urban Native American population of Oakland, CA as their stories of struggle wove together toward a big, dramatic finale and a few revelations about how the characters were related to one another. (It was a finalist for the Pulitzer, and though I liked it, I was not enamored.) In Wandering Stars¸ Orange has crafted both a prequel and sequel, one that can be read without even reading the first book (though it would make more sense). Wandering Stars is divided into two parts, the first the aftermath of the Sand Creek Massacre in the 1800s and a few generations of subsequent incarceration and boarding school sponsored by a government hellbent on de-Indianing the decimated Natives, which is told through half a dozen different voices in chronological chapters. The second part of the book picks up after There There (current time), the multi-POV characters largely from the first book, dealing with the aftermath of the violent incident that brought them all together. With a family tree, we see not only how the people in part two are descendants of the characters in the first part, but also how they are inheritors of much more: repression, stripped identity, substance abuse, poverty, trauma, etc., an ancestry that is patterned in their blood, making history repeat itself even in the minutest of ways. How they are each of them wandering stars.

You know what else I am tired of? People judging literary fiction with its own, unique rubric which is needlessly stuffy and avoids—avoids—such paltry things as story and readability. What do posh readers and academics and publishers have against an actual plot and conventionality, tradition, just CLEAR and good ol’ storytelling? I too love a story that is beautifully written. And one that is unique or innovative. However, these things shouldn’t be at the expense of an actual story and writing that is readable, or non-confusing. Lately, I have encountered a number of books where the readers seem to either a) just gobble up what the previews say (like The Paragon Hotel) or b) use the author’s credentials to shield them from authentic reviews (like in Stay True). I couldn’t help but feel that Wandering Stars didn’t feel the full brunt of bored and unimpressed readers because of both the hype of the book itself and the name of Tommy Orange.

I’m not exactly saying that Wandering Stars is a bad book, it’s just not what it’s made out to be before you even crack the spine. (Okay, don’t really crack the spine; that would be barbaric.) Despite all the interesting characters and history, I could never quite step into the book. I kept pulling back and thinking about how it was really just a book of short stories. No, it was really just a book of essays that Orange decided to turn into short stories for some reason. The whole thing felt like a venue for Orange’s research and thoughts instead of authentic characters taking part in a compelling plot. Perhaps if that’s how it was packaged, I could have enjoyed the history, the insight, and the fairly nice writing. But there were still some other problems.

Such as the chronology. Everything was chronological until it wasn’t. Several times a story would loop back around and pick up some old event in the middle of something and I would find myself wondering why Orange or his editor didn’t go back and re-order it. Like, I couldn’t figure out what was added to the story by doing it that way—it felt like a first draft mistake kind of thing. Also, the family tree was not at the beginning. Which means every time I needed to reference it, I had to find it. Why not just put it at the beginning, I ask you. Also, there are many grammar faux pas. This is one of those areas where I know people are going to say, “But it was on purpose.” It’s so artsy. So modern. So literary. I know, because I’ve heard other readers make this claim after I totally knew they would. I call B.S. Why? Because I can’t find a reason for the grammatical mistakes. They’re just confusing the reader and demanding re-reads and pauses, but without a pay-off. Also, the POV of the story shifted nearly every chapter and took place over decades in multiple states. Again, I had a very strong feeling that at least one person at book club was going to praise Orange for how good he was at writing in all those different voices, but I was prepared to roll my eyes and keep my lips shut. The circumstances were different with each person, yes. But the voice of all of them was uniform: it was Orange’s. I noticed that all the way through. I have read authors who really throw themselves into different characters, a seamless transformation. In Wandering Stars, I always knew I was hearing Tommy Orange, to the point that I found certain characters to be extremely unbelievable due to the maturity level and the insight level of their character’s “voice.” Also, another justification I kept hearing was, “Yes, that part seems crazy but it’s actually really realistic,” to which I kept thinking, “but it’s fiction. It doesn’t have to be realistic. Or real. It has to sell itself to the reader.” And when we went to second POV and/or present imperative! My eyes nearly rolled out onto the floor. Also, why did he have to reuse names for multiple generations? Why??? Or give them a frickin’ nickname.

This is what I jotted down after I had read it, before I went to book club or looked online at other reviews: both the sentence and story structure are confusing. Lots of work and guessing (by the reader). Very jumpy. Present tense and past. No time tags. Many confusing sentences; example: “But there he was possibly dying from what?” (p67); “The coats of paint up there were changing, seeming more than random forms, more and more like distinct shapes, and then like shadows from a life he’d once lived but couldn’t remember, or a life on its way, a future beyond what he would hope for if he could hope, or if hope was the right word for how drugs could feel when they were really starting to work” (p120). Orange has a way of writing himself into knots, our mental tongue twisted into incomprehension by the strange, circuitous approach to structure on both sentence and story levels.

I did get a kick out of when some guy at book club said: “I kinda prefer when something happens.” He said it so deadpan, almost kind. But he felt that crap to his toes. And I did too. We have here a book of coincidences hanging loosely together and shot through with reoccurrences. We also have a book about addiction, repetition, repeating patterns, trauma. Maybe mostly addiction. Another person at book club said, “The other book [There There] was better.” Also something I can agree with. Here’s the thing: there are other Native peoples’ books and other trauma/addiction books that I would recommend more strongly than Wandering Stars. As far as addiction, we have The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls (with some reservations), A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin, and ‘Tis by Frank McCourt (also with some reservations), for a start. As for Native American literature, I don’t have as much as I’d like to able to give you, but let’s start with Great Short Stories by Native American Writers (Dover Thrift, Bob Blaisdel). And I do have a list of best books to read by Native authors HERE, I just don’t have reviews for them yet. And There There. I still think that is a better read.

Someone suggested Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi because it is similar. It does follow generations of an oppressed people from Ghana to modern-day America, though it is a different people group. And it has amazing reviews. I would really like to read it, and I will guess now that I will like it and rate it better than Wandering Stars. As for Native American-forward literature, I thought Firekeeper’s Daughter, a YA thriller by Angeline Boulley—taught me more about Native culture and past in a more enjoyable way than Wandering Stars, though admittedly it’s not trying to be all literary and there are some objectively “better” things about Wandering Stars. In the end, though, I’d rather read Homegoing and Firekeeper’s Daughter and some other Native American literary fiction that must be out there, somewhere. And keep waiting for Orange’s magnum opus (or eventually realize it was There There). (There are also movies and shows like Reservation Dogs, True Detective season 4, and–one of my faves–Smoke Signals.)

But I’m still not going to say not to read Wandering Stars. I thought it had some glaring issues, yes, ones that everyone in the book world seems to be ignoring. But plenty of people in book group enjoyed it, anyhow. It’s not super long. And it has plenty to say. There are stars mentioned in various places in the text. And there is wandering. So, so much wandering.

Tommy Orange is a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes from Oakland, CA. He has had short pieces in Esquire, Zeoptrope: All-Story, and McSweeney’s. His first novel, There There, won him the American Book Award and made him a finalist for the Pulitzer and the PEN/Hemingway. He studied sound arts in college and got into writing while working at a bookstore. It’s pretty easy to see him in his work, and he says There There was inspired by his dad’s life.

If you are more curious about him, here is a recent article from the LA Times.

“Hunger seemed to be keeping us alive while also threatening to kill us” (p11).

“Stories do more than comfort. They take you away and bring you back better made” (p35).

“…the world lit up again each day was the most normal and most blessed thing to behold” (p37).

“He knew something holy was happening to everyone even while life could feel a hell of a lot like hell” (p70).

“…white men in this country, they come to take everything, even themselves, they have taken so much they have lost themselves in the taking, and what will be left of such a nation once they are done? My mother once said, ‘A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground. Then it is finished, no matter how brave its warriors, or how strong their weapons’” (p83).

“You will always want to ask her what it means, to live on the land that was taken from you, to have to still live on the land that was taken and keeps being taken. Did it feel like it kept happening in the present time, not in the past but perpetually, as in a car someone steals from you with you still inside it, driving through your neighborhood, forever circling the driveway of your how, where you parked the car…” (p102).

“Love was always tied to and obfuscated by obligation” (p134).

“…the way he thought about having drugs in the future, and not caring that he knew it was wrong, he knew it was a problem, and that he didn’t care that it was, and that that too was a problem about which he also didn’t care” (p136).

“Being… white… was the background sound you only ever noticed got turned off in rare moments when the spotlight shifted temporarily” (p140).

“…white people who want so bad to be on the right side of history they forget they’re inevitably on the white side of history” (p143).