Summer Reading for the Class of 2023: 'There There,' A Tale of Being Caught In Two Places

Tommy Orange, author of
A powerful novel of urban Native Americans confronting alcoholism, depression and unemployment amidst the historical backdrop of U.S. subjugation has been selected as the Duke University Class of 2023 Common Experience summer reading book.  “There There,” by Tommy Orange, 37, takes place in Oakland, Calif., where the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal member grew up.

The book made Katie Howie, a junior on the selection committee, laugh and cry.    

“This is the kind of book you can’t stop thinking about for weeks after reading it,” Howie said. “I love the vulnerability and brutal honesty with which Tommy Orange illustrates the way moments from centuries ago are still systemically impacting members of our community, after centuries of silence instead of reparations.”

The Duke Common Experience Program is designed to provide incoming students with a shared intellectual experience with other members of their class, with the summer reading choice as a focal point. A committee composed of students, staff and faculty selected the book after reviewing many recommendations, along with advice from the larger Duke community. They look for books that will prompt stimulating debate; resonate with incoming students; encourage introspection; and enrich the intellectual life of students.

Janie Booth, a senior on the selection committee, said she thinks first-year students, regardless of ethnic or racial identity, will like the characters and make them reflect on starting a new life.

“Reading ‘There There’ made me want to stretch across to the West Coast and give Tommy Orange one great, big hug,” Booth said. “It's a book about being caught between two places at once: the world of your ancestors and the home of your own making. I think it has the potential to spark so many relevant questions among first-year students: how to look and act in a place that is different from what you are comfortable in, and how to navigate cultural divides, sometimes unsuccessfully.”

The selection of “There There” coincides with a major art exhibit that will be hosted in the fall by the Nasher Museum of Art. 'Art for a New Understanding: Native Voices' will feature modern works of art by Native Americans. 

Committee members did not come to their decision easily. They picked five finalists, including “There There,” out of more than 100 recommendations:

The Poet X, by Elizabeth Acevedo
Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid
Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee
Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, by Sarah Smarsh

Jordan Hale, director of New Student programs, said he is happy with the selection because “bottom line, it is just a good book” that students, faculty and staff will enjoy.

“Often times, when making a selection we can get caught up in themes, characters, settings or the author,” Hale said. “But while reading this book, you just get lost in the story and the enjoyment of reading."

A special printing of “There There” will be mailed this summer to members of the Duke Class of 2023.