Delacorte Press, 2011.
Kana Goldberg is a half-Jewish, half-Japanese American teenager. Because of a classmate’s suicide for which she feels some responsibility – she was amongst a clique of girls that made unkind remarks to the suicide victim – she has been sent off to Japan for the summer to work in her grandparents mikan (or mandarin orange) orchards. While there, she has to negotiate the difficulty of adjusting to life in Japan as an American of mixed Japanese ancestry. Her Japanese family, while sensitive and accommodating, are nonetheless different in their world views. In spending time with them, however, Kana begins to heal and gain perspective on the events that occurred; in so doing, she makes contact with one of the people involved, and that leads to an unexpected ending.
Orchards is Thompson’s debut novel for young adults and is written in verse. In general, I have mixed feelings about the YA verse novel: however, Thompson’s Orchards has a kind of resonant beauty slightly reminiscent of haiku where images from the orchard and the surrounding landscape linger in the mind. Brevity of life, fleeting impressions, contemplative reflections on Nature are often the ‘stuff’ of Japanese poetry and some of that sensibility is conveyed in Orchards. But there is also real teenage drama here, moving the book forward as a story – issues with body image, feelings of estrangement, angst and regret.
Thompson (The Wakame Gatherers) is a longtime resident of Japan who teaches creative writing at Yokohama University. In Orchards, she has sensitively portrayed life in Japan for many a cross-cultural teenager – particularly those who experience life in two vastly different worlds because of their connection to Japan through a parent or relative. I think this is the aspect of Orchards I appreciated the most, having had similar experiences to the protagonist Kana, in visiting my relatives over the years in Japan. There were finely tuned details in Orchards that I found familiar, like hoarding snacks because meals don’t seem quite enough, or comments people make about your appearance or the way you speak. Kana is a character one can readily identify with and have sympathy for.
Orchards is an especially rewarding read for those interested in cross-cultural experiences between Japan and America. It is also a poignant rendering of a young woman’s psyche as she seeks to heal from a traumatic event in her life; this facet of Orchards makes it a story with universal appeal.