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"Wandering Stars" | Reviewed by William Winkler

Tommy Orange is a citizen of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Arizona. His first novel, “There There,” was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for 2019.

Orange’s new novel, “Wandering Stars,” like “There There,” deals with issues common to many Native Americans living in urban America; addiction, depression, and the difficulties associated with ambiguous ethnic identification.

The novel chronicles seven generations of the Star/Red Feather family, dating back to the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864. It details the development of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, a government institution from 1879 through 1918, a school designed to train Native Americans in European culture, language, and religion. Its unofficial motto was, “Kill the Indian, save the man.”

Much of the novel is based in contemporary Oakland, California, centering around the shooting of Orvil Red Feather. The young man was at a powwow in the Oakland Coliseum, attempting to reconnect with his ethnic heritage while dancing in what he believed to be authentic Native American gear. The shooting and his recovery led to an opioid addiction, mirroring the addictions of many of his ancestors and peers.

Throughout “Wandering Stars” Orange varies the point of view from first to third person, depending on the character at the heart of the chapter. He also modulates the style of his prose to fit the era being described. The result is a coat of many colors, reflecting the changing history and fortunes of Native Americans in the 19th, 20th and 21st-centuries.

In an era when recalling some of the less savory aspects in American history are being denigrated, Orange’s novel is a pointed reminder of the injustices visited upon those inhabiting the land when the first Europeans arrived, as well as in the years thereafter.

At the same time, “Wandering Stars” depicts the descendants of the Natives as real people with real problems as well as real hopes and dreams.



 

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