March 26, 2012
Orchards by Holly Thompson
Just who is to blame when someone who has been bullied takes her life? This is the question that Holly Thompson asks in this free verse novel.
Our narrator is Kana Goldberg, half-Japenese and half-Jewish American. After a classmate hangs herself in another classmate’s orchard, a suicide note is found implicating a group of 8th grade girls, including Kana. As a result, summer plans are upended as the adults find someplace for each of these girls to spend their summer. Kana is sent to stay with her aunt, uncle, cousins and grandmother in Japan.
In Japan, Kana finds herself in a world where she doesn’t quite fit in. She’s simply not Japanese enough — not even her ample butt which her grandmother comments on almost daily.
Each and every day, Kana wonders what she should have done differently back at home. When she sees a Japanese classmate being bullied (she’s arrived in Japan with a month of school left and gets to spend part of her summer vacation in classes), she decides to intervene. Instead of being grateful, the other girl brushes her off and Kana is no longer the fascinating visitor from America. She is simply tolerated.
Ironically enough, Kana’s family owns an orchard and this is where she spends large parts of her summer, tending trees and getting to know her cousin, Koichi. It isn’t the orchard Koichi loves as much as it is the equipment that he gets to tinker with and he is soon issuing her challenges. “What is the best way to do this? How can we more efficiently do that?”
All the while, Kana is learning the Japanese traditions for honoring the dead, including her grandfather who died three years earlier. She makes offerings, lights incense and helps her grandmother in countless tasks — not because she necessarily understands them but because it is the right thing to do.
I’m not going to discuss the plot any more because I don’t want to ruin the ending, suffice it to say that this story is depressingly realistic, but the way it is handled is appropriate for a middle grade audience. While numerous books discuss “boy bullying,” I haven’t seen nearly as many that feature the less physical girl version.
Kana was initially a little hard to sympathize with but that’s probably because I am the Mom of a tween. Can you say, “I want to pick her up and shake some sense into her”? But her attitudes were irritatingly realistic and, initially, self-serving.
The free verse format makes for a quick read that will pull in young readers and hopefully make some of them think about how they act and react with their classmates.
A must read for middle schoolers and those who work with them.