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‘Many-sided intent’: Tommy Orange, author of Wandering Stars. Photograph: Winni Wintermeyer

The ObserverFiction

Wandering Stars by Tommy Orange review – tapestry of colonial trauma is harrowing yet healing

Survivors’ stories provide gritty testament to the moral confusion of life in the aftermath of atrocity in the Pulitzer-nominated Native American’s eye-opening second novel

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.”

Orange’s debut, There There, unspooled as oral testimony following a dozen Native and mixed-race protagonists ahead of a powwow violently disrupted by a troubled addict with a 3D-printed pistol. His compact but capacious new novel – another polyvocal panorama, both prequel and sequel – describes the attack’s aftermath from the point of view of its college-age victim, Orvil Red Feather, but not before chronicling six generations of his bloodline, beginning with his great-great-great-great-grandfather, Jude Star, a boyhood survivor of the 1864 Sand Creek massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho villagers, approved by Theodore Roosevelt “in spite of certain most objectionable details”, an epigraph tells us.

The shard of bullet stuck in Orvil’s body, painful yet too dangerous to remove, attains symbolic aura as the novel weaves a tapestry of trauma down the decades. These are survivors’ stories shadowed by violence both physical and psychological – extermination, assimilation – but while the novel is unambiguous about colonial atrocity, it’s equally insistent on the moral confusion of life in the aftermath. Pressure to make ends meet and the desperation of addiction, fed over the book’s century-and-a-half span by everything from looted whisky to home-concocted narcotics, are recurring themes. The drama often turns on ill-starred characters playing bad hands badly, a mark of Orange’s many-sided intent; Jude’s segment ends as he’s turning gunman himself, the grim end to a life forged out of erasure.

Narrative heft accumulates less through individual stories than through the sum of these experiences. Whether seamstress, stick-up man or cab driver, no one character hogs the mic, as Orange generates momentum by omission. Love interests come and go in paragraphs; someone’s friend, made in rehab, dies by the next page. Orange portrays the Native American occupation of Alcatraz island in 1969, and at one point inhabits the perspective of soldier turned teacher Richard Henry Pratt as he pursues his aggressively assimilationist policy of “kill the Indian, save the man” at the boarding school he opened in 1879; but he also writes about Street Fighter II, online messaging and an underground rave.

(Native American deer hide painting of the Sand Creek massacre, a narrative focal point of Wandering Stars)

Structurally indirect, the novel is also blunt when it needs to be, as when we’re told that one character, in utero at the moment of narration, will learn her heritage after her adoptive mother dies: “You will… take in what it means to be the children and grandchildren of massacre. You will understand another form of inheritance then. Feel it.” There’s an exchange about the appropriateness or otherwise of the term “Indian”, and Orange lets his book’s ethical imperative be stated more or less baldly when one of his characters thinks: “It would be nice if the rest of the country understood that not all of us have our culture or language intact directly because of what happened to our people, how we were systematically wiped out from the outside in and then the inside out, and consistently dehumanised and misrepresented in the media and in educational institutions.”

You sense Orange feels on safest ground as a scene-maker in the segments that draw near the present day, when zingy dialogue starts shaping the action, buoyed up by the bickering of console-playing brothers buffeted by bereavement and bad luck. Ultimately the turns their stories take – one becomes a self-harming runaway, another crashes a borrowed car while high – are about healing, not catastrophe; the same might be said of Wandering Stars, unlikely though it seems in the most harrowing moments of a novel marrying eye-opening historical re-creation with gritty social realism.

Wandering Stars by Tommy Orange is published by Harvill Secker (£18.99).

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