Book review: Orchards by Holly Thompson

I’m writing about YA short story anthologies for The Hub (to be published on Thursday, check it out!), so for the last few weeks that’s pretty much all that I’ve been reading. It’s been a little exhausting in some ways. I like short stories, but I don’t usually like to read a ton of them all at once. I’m more of a haphazard-pick-one-up-every-once-in-a-blue-moon short story reader. But there’s been a lot of great anthologies come out for young adults, so I’ve been intrigued.

But since then I have been craving fiction. I think my biggest problem with short stories is that I often want more out of them. More pages, more exposition, more plot, more of everything. It can be hard when you find a wonderfully realized and imagined world with phenomenal characters and it’s only 30 pages long! I’m often left wondering, “What’s next!? But how will it resolve!? Why have you done this to me, Author!?” Basically, they make me feel one big interrobang. You get more – though not all because that’s not any fun – of those questions answered in fiction. I’ve felt starved for it.

So I read Orchards, a quick, beautiful little novel in verse by Holly Thompson. It’s the story of a half Japanese, half Jewish-American girl from the New York suburbs who is sent to live with her extended family in Japan for a summer after a student in her class hangs herself in an apple orchard. While the family’s motives to send her away from her sister and friends in this difficult time can be hard to justify, it is understandable. They think it will help her to get away, to deal with it when everything is not so present and pressing. But Kana feels out of place with her traditional family and her grandmother who is constantly pestering her about her Western-sized butt and teenage ways. She wonders who is responsible for the death of the girl, Ruth, an outsider to her group of friends. It’s obvious that Kana feels some of that responsibility upon her shoulders and that of her friend Lisa, who was jealous because of Ruth’s relationship with Jake.

But in the mikan orange groves of Japan, Kana is able to free her mind to process. She feels the responsibility and can empathize with Ruth’s outsider status when she goes to a Japanese school for a month and is the strange, not quite Japanese enough American. She begins to heal and forgive herself with Lisa hangs herself a summer camp. She’s rushed back to the States but this time, taking the lessons she learned from her very traditional, lose-knit family in Japan, she makes strides to honor Lisa and Ruth’s lives. She resolves to be kind and close and caring.

Mikan trees in Japan from Flickr user trinidad sky
Mikan trees in Japan from Flickr user trinidad sky

I don’t see too many adult novels written in verse, but in YA it’s fairly common. Ellen Hopkins and Sonya Sones write in verse and they are both pretty popular authors. The format of the book lends itself to the contemplative and slow nature of the story. It gives it an almost atmospheric and slightly disorienting feeling that mirrors Kana’s feelings in Japan. The way the author draws parallels between the orchard where Ruth killed herself and the orchards owned and meticulously cared for by Kana’s family is particularly lovely as well.

I recommend this highly. It’s a quick read, but another one that sticks with you for a while.

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