Holly Thompson‘s novel-in-verse begins with a jarring slam: “One week after / you stuffed a coil of rope / into your backpack / and walked uphill into / Osgoods’ orchard / where blooms were still closed fists // my father looked up summer airfares to Tokyo.”
Kanako Goldberg’s eighth-grade classmate Ruth is dead from suicide. In spite of Kana’s protestations of “it wasn’t my fault / I didn’t do anything!” her parents decide to send her to Japan to “reflect / in the presence of your ancestors.” Although Kana wasn’t the one whose vicious note was found in Ruth’s pocket, Kana and her friends know they could have been kinder, gentler, more inclusive. Indeed, none of them did anything … when they could have, when they should have.
To give her distanced thinking space, Kana is sent to a Japanese seaside village to stay with her mother’s family, to experience her Japanese heritage, rediscover her extended relatives, and work on the family citrus farm where she learns to cultivate mikan, a uniquely Japanese fruit of the orange family. This orchard is where Kana’s mother grew up, before she married Kana’s Jewish American father, and moved thousands of miles away.
Far away from home, Kana is seemingly insulated from the tragedy, and yet aching thoughts of could-have-been, should-have-been relentlessly pervade Kana’s thoughts. Just as she is beginning to strengthen her fragile self, tragedy strikes again, and Kana must somehow find the strength to understand and survive.
Thompson’s sparse pages speak volumes, from Kana’s complicit guilt, to her forced-to-be-wise-attempts to understand (“as though / we’re dressed up / in oversized adult clothing”), to her astute, gorgeous response to help her friends and classmates to heal … and live. Thompson confronts every-parent’s-nightmare-come-true with breathtaking clarity; Orchards is both a wake-up call and a haunting elegy. It’s not easy to read, but it’s undoubtedly a must-read.
Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult