Kanako Goldberg, an eighth grader, is sent to Japan to spend some time with her mother's family reflecting upon the recent suicide of a classmate. Kana, who is half Japanese, was part of a clique of girls who were mean to Ruth, a girl their grade. Kana likens her clique to the structure of an atom, in which
Lisa, head of the clique, is the atom and the other girls are like electrons arranged in shells around her. Ruth, the girl who committed suicide was "in the least stable most vulnerable outermost shell".
Kana's parents send her to her maternal grandparent's mikan orange farm in Kohama Village where she will stay with Baachan her grandmother, her Aunt and Uncle, and her first cousins Koichi and Yurie. She will attend the last month of school and then help out in the family orchards.The purpose of the visit will be to reflect upon what has happened:
all she'd say
row after row
you can reflect
in the presence of your ancestors
While Kana's first reaction of sorrow was similar to that of her friends, Kana also experiences anger at Ruth killing herself. Kana blames Ruth for her banishment to Japan.
because of you, Ruth,
to my maternal grandmother, Baachan,
to the ancestors of the altar
and to Uncle, Aunt and cousins
Kana can't help thinking about Ruth. Partly this is because, despite the vast change of scene, Kana is working in her family's orchards and in a haunting co-incidence, Ruth hanged herself in Osgoods' orchard - a place where she often found solace and would meet a friend and classmate, Jake.
and moments when I have to pause
catch my breath
hold on to a branch
and not because I'm tired
or lost my balance
but because I'm seeing you, Ruth,
in Osgoods' orchard
setting down your pack
In an attempt to banish thoughts of Ruth, Kana tries to find comfort in being very busy and adapting to life in Japan. A trip to Tokyo on Marine Day, with older second cousin Asuka, provides some relief to Kana, but when she returns, the long days of work in the mikan orchard provide opportunities for more soul searching.
In Orchards, the circumstances surrounding Ruth's suicide are gradually revealed by Kana in flashback as she struggles to understand. The story is told in sparse but poignant free verse. We learn about Ruth and Lisa and how their mutual classmate, Jake was on the cusp of trying to reach out to Ruth.
Staying with her extended family in Japan causes Kana to reflect on her mother's story, her life in Japan and how she came to emigrate to American and marry a man of Russian-Jewish heritage. Kana comes to the realization that there are two sides to every story,
fault and blame --
both seem so easy to place
but much harder
there must be at least
to your story, too, Ruth,
and maybe knowing
more of Lisa's side
Under the prompting of her grandmother, Kana reaches out to Jake, encouraging him to contact Lisa. But when tragedy stikes a second time, Kana is completetly devastated. It is Baachan, normally reticent and sharp with Kana, who comes to her rescue. And this is one of the best parts of Orchards in my opinion. In a touching series of poesm we see how Baachan helps Kana (and the reader) understand this second tragedy with her wisdom. Because she has watched everything unfold from a distance, Baachan's offers a clear perspective of what has happened.
Kana's visit to Kohama has the effect of not only helping her deal with suicide and come to terms with the recent tragedy, but it brings about a healing within her own family too. Because of her mother's marriage and move to America, relations with the Japanese side of the family had badly deteriorated. Much anger existed between her mother and her parents who blamed Kana's father for taking her mother so far away from the family. Now the mutual concern for Kana's well being by both American and Japanese sides of the family draw them together again.
Orchards offers an effective means to explore the tragic issue of suicide among teens. As an older person, I could relate in many ways to how Kana felt and I think many teens would be able to identify with her shock, anger and guilt over a friend's suicide. My own daughter had to cope the the suicide of a classmate within her own circle of friends during her senior year of high school. A normally happy person she was completely undone by the death of a friend who seemed to show no signs of any problem. We still do not know what the trigger. We struggle to understand why this lovely young friend did not reach out to anyone.
Author Holly Thompson makes use of some unusual imagery to discuss themes of healing and recovery. Although Ruth dies in an orchard, it is another orchard, halfway around the world that helps Kana heal.
If Thompson's purpose for Orchards was to tell a good story while exploring the issue of teen suicide and bullying, she has accomplished that in a brilliant manner. I highly recommend this novel to those who enjoy verse.
The black ink illustrations by Grady McFerrin enhance Thompson's lucid poetry.
Orchards by Holly Thompson Illustrations by Grady McFerrin
New York: Delacorte Press 2011