Wandering Stars by Tommy Orange

If you’re anything like me, you’ve had some disappointing experiences with sequels. I’ve often loved a debut novel or the first book in a series so much that I didn’t even read the synopsis of the author’s next book before preordering it, only to be left wondering how on Earth the same writer I was previously praising could write something so underwhelming or messy. 

When I heard that Tommy Orange, East Bay writer and author of There There, was releasing his sophomore novel this year, I knew I had to do everything I could to get my hands on a copy. After digging a little deeper into this author’s lore, I learned that Orange wrote his highly anticipated sequel to There There alongside his good friend and fellow author, Kaveh Akbar (yes, the very same Kaveh Akbar who wrote our February pick, Martyr!) and I felt my expectations rise to almost unobtainable heights.

Orange exceeded those expectations.

Wandering Stars expands the story of There There in both directions, serving as a prequel and sequel to the events of the 2018 novel that touched so many hearts. Although Wandering Stars can stand on its own, I highly recommend you read There There before picking it up. Regardless, I will avoid spoiling anything significant from Orange’s debut novel in this review.

The first portion of Wandering Stars takes us back in time to the Sand Creek Massacre where we meet Star, a young survivor brought to the Fort Marion Prison Castle and forced by Richard Henry Pratt to learn English and practice Christianity. Pratt is an evangelical prison guard who will go on to found the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, an institution dedicated to the eradication of Native history, culture, and identity. A generation later, Star’s son, Charles, is sent to this school, where he is brutalized by the man who was once his father’s jailer. Amongst the torment, Charles cherishes moments of joy with a fellow student, Opal Viola, as the two envision a future away from the violence that follows their bloodlines.

The second portion of the novel drops us in Oakland in 2018, where Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield is barely holding her family together following a tragic event. We watch as each of her nephews struggles in his own way to heal from a collective trauma, whether it’s through an emotional reliance on prescription medication, self-harm as a way to suppress PTSD and connect to their Cheyenne heritage, or avoidance of those who remind them of what has happened.

Tender and honest, Wandering Stars explores what it takes to mend a broken spirit.

Orange has a gift for taking large themes and concepts and feeding them to the reader in a way that doesn’t feel like work. It takes a seriously talented, emotionally intelligent human to write something this deeply feeling and not overcomplicate it.

As in There There, this story is told through multiple points of view, each as strong as the last. His characters are flawed and so tragically real that I often forget they’ve been created by a man typing away at his computer. Nothing felt forced or like a lecture, but, in the end, I felt I had learned something big (or many big somethings). Another instant classic, I would not be surprised to see Wandering Stars alongside There There as required reading for students in the near future.

I’ve seen reviews saying this book will save lives, and I strongly agree with that. Whether you’re struggling through recovery or depression or trauma or any combination of these things, Wandering Stars will see you and hold you and lift you back up as it encourages you to keep going. If you’ve read and loved There There, I’ve no doubt you’ll run to Bookshop Benicia to get yourself a copy of this book. And if this is the first you’ve heard of Tommy Orange, you don’t just have to take my word for it. A quick Google search will bring you to hundreds of articles praising Orange and what he’s done for the world through his writing. 

Sip the Season Mocktail

Ingredients:

  • A few sprigs of rosemary
  • 1 lemon (juice and zest)
  • A pinch of salt
  • Sparkling water (if cold)

Preparation:

Cold – Muddle all ingredients together except for the sparkling water. Strain and top with sparkling water. 

Hot – Simmer rosemary and lemon zest in 1 cup of water. Add in honey and lemon juice at the end.