Wandering Stars by Tommy Orange review – wounds of history | Fiction

The Cheyenne and Arapaho author Tommy Orange’s astonishing 2018 debut novel, There There, offered a kaleido­scopic portrait of urban Native American identity. Composed of an all-Native cast, it ruminated on power, storytelling, dispossession, erasure and historical memory. The novel’s off-the-wall structure placed its central event – a mass shooting at an Oakland powwow – at the book’s end, leaving its aftermath largely unattended.

Now comes an emotionally incandescent and structurally riveting second novel, Wandering Stars. A companion to There There, it brings news about Orvil Red Feather, who was hit by a bullet while dancing at the event. It tells, too, the story of Orvil’s younger brothers Loother and Lony; their great-aunt Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, in whose care they have been since losing their drug-addicted mother to suicide; and Jacquie Red Feather, Opal’s half-sister and the boys’ estranged “real grandma”, a recovering alcoholic who is living “her sobriety, moment by moment, step by step, day by day”. The novel’s first sections, however, belong not to these people but to their ancestors, beginning with Jude Star, a survivor of the 1864 Sand Creek massacre.

In an impassioned prologue, Orange samples the eliminationist rhetoric of Colonel John Chivington, who led US army troops at the massacre: “There were children, and then there were the children of Indians, because the merciless savage inhabitants of these American lands did not make children but nits, and nits make lice, or so it was said by the man who meant to make a massacre feel like killing bugs at Sand Creek.” Orange uses the prologue to remind the reader of language’s dual capacity for goodness and evil, and how this slippery doubleness has been wielded in the context of America’s long war with its Indigenous populations. Orange excoriates Lt Richard Henry Pratt’s “campaign-style slogan directed at the Indian problem”, “Kill the Indian, Save the Man”, tracing its ruinous implications for Native children who, in the 19th and 20th centuries, were impelled to attend special off‑reservation boarding schools in a philosophy of forced assimilation.

Jude escapes the massacre but is imprisoned for “crimes committed by Southern Cheyennes against the US Army”. He spends three years in a “prison-castle” in Florida, made to dress like “the very kind of men some of us had seen wipe our people out”. He learns to read and write in English by memorising verses from the Bible, including one about false prophets – the corrupt and doomed “wandering stars” of the book’s title. A generation later, his son Charles, a student at the Carlisle Indian Industrial school, will relive his ordeals. Father and son will also share a history of addiction – to alcohol and opium respectively.

One character in There There asserts that “the problem with Indigenous art in general is that it’s stuck in the past”. This sentiment resurfaces in Wandering Stars in Lony’s remark that “everyone only thinks we’re from the past, but then we’re here, but they don’t know we’re still here, so then it’s like we’re in the future”. Orange’s achievement in these first chapters, then, lies in his ability to distil the deep wounds of history into intimate episodes and slices of memory that come vividly and painfully alive, as though they were happening now, in the present. There are some wrenching details: incarcerated Natives put on view, made to perform their Indigeneity, selling art and curios to white people. In an episode that Jude describes as “some kind of death”, measurements of their heads are taken to demonstrate “why they were savages”. Orange gives the reader a clear, shattering sense of the racist ideas that once enthralled white America, and the means, both mundane and pseudoscientific, through which it pursued its accursed ambitions. Fittingly, the historical Pratt is a character accorded flesh as well as the complexity of psychology. In moments of chilling insight, Orange allows the reader to grasp how it was possible for the man to see himself as well intentioned while being undeniably monstrous.

Meanwhile, in the topsy-turvy, post-shooting present, Orvil is at home, recovering. A star-shaped bullet shard is lodged in his body, threatening to burst into his bloodstream and poison him. His mind is busy with images of violence. “Most of the dreams he had now were of shootings of one kind or another. The sounds, the running, the heavy feeling of being shot.” Opiates provide him with solace. A guitar that Opal gives him is similarly a kind of life raft.

But despite film nights and games of dominoes, nothing feels right for Orvil and the rest of the Bear Shield-Red Feather family. There is the grudging knowledge, since the shooting, of time split into a before and an after. They move ploddingly through their days, hyperaware of hauling their familial history. Lony has nightmares of being crushed by it, all that his ancestors “couldn’t carry, couldn’t resolve, couldn’t figure out, with all their weight” knocking him down. Orange replicates these feelings by filling the narrative with a glut of circular dead time. “Every day is a loop … Every day is the sun rising, and the sun going down, and the sleep we must sleep … Every day is life convincing us it’s not a loop.” It’s a risk for a writer to use inertia in this way, but it becomes a refreshing provocation against the very notion of progress: personal, intergenerational, historical.

Wandering Stars asks: what becomes of a person and a family when the things they inherit from their forebears are overwhelmingly the bad stuff – wounds and torments, ill luck, curses and injurious predilections? What kind of life is possible after genocide and colonisation? Toni Morrison once said: “A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity.” Hyperbole be damned: Orange’s work feels, to me, as vital as air.

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Wandering Stars by Tommy Orange is published by Harvill Secker (£18.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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