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Orchards by H. Thompson

Thompson, Holly. Orchards, New York: Delacorte Press, 2011. Print.

Orchards is a poetic novel written by Holly Thompson. It tells the story of Kana Goldberg, an American girl, half-Jewish and half-Japanese, who is sent to spend the summer with her mother’s family in Japan working on their mikan farm. (Mikan is a type of Japanese orange.) A school-mate, Ruth, has committed suicide and Kana is a member of the group of girls who had excluded and locked horns with the girl over a boy, not realizing at the time that she suffered from bi-polar disease and that she was reaching out to the boy for support.

The book is less about Kana accepting responsibility for her involvement in the confrontation with Ruth than it is about mending relationships and the process of Kana overcoming her anger and feelings of guilt. The book challenges us to set aside our own pre-conceived notions about bullying and consider the idea that everyone is vulnerable to depression, and that what gets sensationalized in the media as bullying is not always a black and white case of cruelty, but is sometimes a case of misunderstanding that escalates in dramatic fashion when emotions are mixed in.

Kana’s fixation on Ruth and the pressure of a community that blames her and the other girls constitute an invisible burden that puts her at risk of the unthinkable, too. “Suicide can spread like a virus,” Kana’s grandmother warns. Kana’s ‘exile’ to a strange country turns out to be a chance to ground herself amongst her family, make peace with the presence of death in life, find confidence in who she is, and learn how to make a difference in the world of the living.

Readers expecting a remorseful narrative may feel unsatisfied, but because the book reads quickly and the language is pleasurable, they may also decide to re-read it for a second impression. The reason it reads quickly is that Thompson has chosen to tell the story in a kind of free-flowing verse. Stanzas of varying lengths define sentence-like sequences, with the breaks between stanzas replacing the conventional sentence demarcators of full stops and capitalized first words. Line breaks play the role of commas, controlling the flow without impeding it. These syntactic arrangements complement the imagistic and uncluttered style of the writing, giving an inward, contemplative feel to the story. Because it is a subtle book, it would be most suitable for an older teen who is perceptive and has literary sensibilities.

Recommended: 3 out of 4 stars
Reviewer: John Huck

John Huck is a metadata and cataloguing librarian at the University of Alberta. He holds an undergraduate degree in English literature and maintains a special interest in the spoken word. He is also a classical musician and has sung semi-professionally for many years.