Orchards by Holly Thompson 2011
Delacorte Press/Random House
IQ "I try to learn fast/make up for my /non-Japanese half/but Uncle makes/remarks/like after I set the breakfast table-how are we supposed to eat..../with our hands?/I rush to set out chopsticks..../seconds/too late/they seem to think/I can just switch/one half of me/on/and leave the other/half of me/off/but I'm like/warm water/pouring from a faucet/the hot/and cold/both flowing/as one." pg. 24
One of Kana Goldberg's classmates committed suicide at the end of Kana's eight grade year. Everyone wonders who's responsible, but Kana knows she played a small part at least by saying some not-so-nice things to Rachel (the classmate) and not sticking up for her when Kana's cliquey friends said harsh or rude things. Her parents are upset at Kana's behavior and possible hand in the situation so they send her to Japan, specifically the farm Kana's mother grew up on, amongst the mikan orange groves. Kana's grandmother (Baachan) is disapproving of her "Jewish bottom" and it's clear she doesn't trust Kana's Jewish father, it's not tradition to marry outside your culture. Kana is angry with her parents for sending her away from her friends but gradually the distance allows her to work out her feelings of grief and guilt. Her grieving process is interrupted by the death of another friend and that plunges her into a deeper abyss of confusion.
I think the free verse format of the book kept me from better visualizing the countryside of Japan. I've got the travel bug so I wanted way more details than were provided. Kana does spend a lot of time describing food which was yummy to read about (this coming from someone whose never had Japanese food) but I wanted her to describe the differences in schooling, what do the teenagers in Japan do for fun, etc. Instead Kana is a loner in Japan except for cousins a few years older than herself which is understandable but I do wish she had made one friend or her cousins had been around more in the story to take her to a variety of places. I think I was most frustrated that it took place in the countryside since I much prefer reading about city life but I did love the bits about Bon dances and the yukata (which I think is the Japanese word for kimono). The author also didn't make it clear if she was translating the Japanese words to English for example on page 217 the author writes "a yukata kimono." That confused me because I was unsure of a yukata was a type of kimono or the word for kimono in Japan. The story starts off slow and I didn't really take notice of all the details until chapter 3, which isn't bad but still the first two chapters were short but uninteresting, all about the plane ride and Kana's arrival. Eh
The reason for Kana's arrival in Japan is compelling to read about especially as Kana works through her feelings of guilt, anger and sadness. She ranges hot and cold but never gets out of hand. Sometimes she's defensive "Lisa didn't mean it/everyone knows/when a person says/certain things/they don't mean/the words/they say/really" (pg. 109), other times apologetic. The things Kana and her friends said were sad but not surprising. Kana doesn't have a sudden epiphany "What I did was bad! And I regret it absolutely" instead she really has to work on not blaming Rachel for committing suicide and not being able to "take a joke." I truly felt as though I "watched" Kana mature. Kana's personality was withdrawn, she had friends and managed to be in the popular group but she was more on the outside of that group. I could relate to her withdrawn personality but what I couldn't relate to was her fascination with physics. AND YET I loved reading about the connections she drew from physics to the real world becuase no matter how hard my science teacher tries I will never understand the point of physics. "Physics and You/spells it out/says/if body A exerts a force/pn body B/then body B will exert a force/of the same magnitude/on body A/push and pull/I think/maybe this/is what happened/with Lisa/and you, Ruth-/body A/ and body B" (pg. 280) that makes sense to me.
Orchards I think would actually be a stronger story if it wasn't in free verse. I don't think the author was able to fully explore other characters or the setting as effectively in the chosen format. The circumstances surrounding Kana's visit to Japan are what should really draw a reader in. I was half and half. I definitely wanted to see how the author handled the subject of bullying from the voice of someone who not only was a bully but her victim had a very tragic end. The story delivers completely on that part and it's an engaging narrative. I wasn't so thrilled with the descriptions of life in Japan's rural areas, I wanted Japan to play more of a central role but that's not this kind of book. A bonus was the discussions of trying to fit into a culture that is part of you but you have little connection to the actual land (or so you think). I 100% understood Kana's half and half dilemma that gradually becomes less of a problem and more of a gift. The story is most certainly relevant due to the depressing stories of increased bullying (cyber, verbal, not so much physical I don't think) and I think Kana handles the entire situation in an authentic manner, she's never a complete angel nor is she a bitter, "Mean Girl". She's ordinary and I would venture a guess that she could easily have been you or me at some point in our lives.
Disclosure: From the library (also why I had to rush to review it)
*I know I said this book would be reviewed for Japan week but I needed to write a review and publish it so that I can keep the blog fairly current. I still have quite a few options for when I'm able to plan out the week (probably Thanksgiving week or Christmas break when I'll have time to read, read, read).