Book review: Author Tommy Orange returns to the Red Feather boys, both backward and forward in time

“Wandering Stars”

By Tommy Orange; Alfred A. Knopf, 2024; 336 pages; $29.

Tommy Orange’s first novel, “There There,” was both critically acclaimed and a best seller when it appeared in 2018. That story of urban Native Americans tracked 12 characters to the Big Oakland Powwow, along the way encompassing a family and community history of loss and renewal and ending in violence. Second novels rarely match those that burst forth so radiantly, but “Wandering Stars” accomplishes exactly that.

Orange, who brought readers to a new understanding of Native American identity and American life, has delivered what might be considered both a prequel and sequel to “There There,” with all the intelligence, pathos, humor, and love of the first book. The difference here is that, instead of the sprawl of characters in the first book, “Wandering Stars” zeros in on one family and follows it for seven generations. (A family tree at the start provides a handy reference.)

In a prologue, Orange presents a straightforward historical narrative of some of the last “Indian wars” that cleared the southern plains of both Indians and buffalo and opened them to white settlement. He follows that with a brief history of Indian boarding schools and American assimilation policy.

In the following Part I, we meet a young Cheyenne, taken in chains to a Florida prison in 1875. Near his death 50 years later he recounts his experience of being made to “renounce our blanket ways” and become Christian. With his new name, Jude Star (a name he’d taken from the Bible’s Book of Jude and a dark reference there to wandering stars), he’d returned to Oklahoma, married a white woman, and had a son he sent to boarding school.

A new chapter shifts to the perspective of the historical Richard Henry Pratt, who supervised the Florida prisoners and later founded the infamous Carlisle Indian Industrial School based on the prison program of regimentation and “civilizing” Indians. Here, Orange does an impressive job of creating a complex character both true to what we know from history and fully imagined as an old man examining his memories and earlier attitudes. Chapters then alternate between Pratt and Jude Star’s son Charles, who’d been traumatized by his time at Carlisle and struggles to find his way in life. His daughter, subsequently, is adopted by a white family and until later in life learns nothing of her Indian identity.


Part II of the book, titled “Aftermath,” begins in 2018 and picks up after the powwow in “There, There” with Orvil, one of the three Red Feather boys. Orvil is recovering from the bullet that struck him at the powwow and is hooked on pain meds. Alternating chapters belong to Orvil’s younger brothers, his grandmother, his grandmother’s half-sister, and a friend. Each character is drawn with compassion and humor, even as each struggles with contemporary life and generational trauma.

In addition to telling a revelatory, all-engrossing story, Orange shows again why he’s an exceptional prose writer. Each character speaks with a unique and compelling voice, both colloquial and poetic in language. Long-linked sentences flow like wind across a landscape and beat like drums. Precise and startling imagery enlivens nearly every line. When the youngest brother, Lony, dreams that he’s a domino tile, “In the dream he didn’t know when the line would come that would knock him over and end his life. He knew that being knocked over meant that, and that the line was his family line, that something had begun long before he was born that was coming to knock him down, but that this was true of everyone, each family line falling on top of the living when they die, all that they couldn’t carry, couldn’t resolve, couldn’t figure out, with all their weight.”

What about those “wandering stars?” On the most basic level, the characters here fill a constellation. Jude Star is first kept in a star-shaped prison, then chooses his biblical name. (One generation later, that “star” has gone out, the name eclipsed into history while the lineage carries on.) A doctor tells Orvid that the bullet in him is shaped like a star and can’t be safely removed — but warns him that it may wander within his body. Stars enter dreams. Young Lony learns that the sun is a star and that some Native Americans had worshiped it, which makes more sense to him than worshipping “a dead guy on a cross who rose from a grave like a zombie.”

Fiction brings readers into the felt lives of characters, eliciting emotional responses and empathy. In “Wandering Star,” Orange’s characters, with all their troubles, transgressions, and layered stories, become beloved if often infuriating family members. Readers who get to know them open themselves to understanding something about how the generational trauma and resilience of Native Americans, including Alaska Natives, have influenced lives and cultures. Orange has again brilliantly succeeded in enlarging and complicating what it means to be American.

[Iñupiaq author wins national honors for debut novel celebrating unity and beauty in Indigenous cultures]

[The ancestry and activity that informed Alaska author Lily Tuzroyluke’s celebrated debut novel]

[Book review: The dramatic story behind a court decision, told 50 years after it transformed tribal and fisheries law]

Nancy Lord

Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days," and "Early Warming." Her latest book is "pH: A Novel."