After a classmate commits suicide, Kana Goldberg—a half-Japanese, half-Jewish American—wonders who is responsible. She and her cliquey friends said some thoughtless things to the girl. Hoping that Kana will reflect on her behavior, her parents pack her off to her mother’s ancestral home in Japan for the summer. There Kana spends hours under the hot sun tending to her family’s mikan orange groves.Kana’s mixed heritage makes it hard to fit in at first, especially under the critical eye of her traditional grandmother, who has never accepted Kana’s father. But as the summer unfolds, Kana gets to know her relatives, Japan, and village culture, and she begins to process the pain and guilt she feels about the tragedy back home. Then news about a friend sends her world spinning out of orbit all over again.

See the review at WOW Review, Volume IV, Issue 4

3 thoughts on “Orchards

  1. Dear Gail,
    I thank you for adding your honest and important personal voice to your comments above. Orchards is a book I wish I hadn’t needed to write. I wrote Orchards because there is too much silence about teen suicide, too much silence about teen depression, and too little discussion in schools and communities about how our actions and inactions can so profoundly affect others. I hope that the book, with the questions it raises, helps to generate discussions. I cried through every draft of Orchards that I wrote. The story is fiction, it is fictional Kana’s story, but the emotions depicted are derived from my having grappled with real grief, anger, pain, regret–and every other emotion that hits– following three suicides. I’m so sorry for the loss of your son. I hope you will continue to remember him publicly so that others may gain understanding and awareness of struggles for wellness, and so that others may summon the courage and grace to be survivors like yourself, your husband and your son’s brother.
    With hugs and love across the oceans,
    Holly Thompson

  2. Gail says:

    Gail’s comments:

    Thompson does something with Orchards I have not seen in other novels dealing with adolescent suicide, she writes about the domino effect. The domino effect, also referred to as copycat suicide, is the phenomenon where those affected by someone’s suicide, also take their own life. In Orchards, a group of 8th grade girls experience the aftermath and guilt following the suicide of Ruth who was on the outside of their circle. In retrospect, Kana—the narrator of this novel in verse– laments Ruth was someone they really did not know, “she should have been was supposed to have been a friend” (p.203).

    Kana, along with the other girls, is sent away for the summer to think about what she did not do; “I didn’t do anything! Exactly! My mother hissed” (p.2). Kana finds herself in the small Japanese village where her mother grew up and where she has aunts, uncles, cousins, and a grandmother. She is, at first, irate, “I fume and sulk and curse you, Ruth, for sticking me here with cheapskate relatives…and I wonder how I will make it through nearly two more months in this village so far from everything” (p. 79).

    While in Japan, she attends middle school for four weeks and is so ready for it to end. Her attempts at making friends are rebuffed, even from the girl who seems to be ostracized from the others. She is amazed when the students in her homeroom “throw a surprise farewell party” and tell her not to forget them; and she is touched to learn they bought the treats “with their own spending money” (p.104). The irony is not lost here as she realizes the impact she had on their lives juxtaposed against the impact Ruth’s life and death has had on her circle of friends.

    As the summer progresses and Kana vacillates from avoiding thoughts of Ruth to considering every interaction with Ruth. She considers Ruth’s “side of the story…”. “You thought you were bipolar that you were new to the darkness of depression the lows after the highs the highs after the lows that you hadn’t told anyone… and I remember how the counselor said something about not commenting on cause or diagnosis but that ninety percent of people who do what you did suffer from an illness like depression it wasn’t until then right then that everyone began seeing your side of the story…” (p. 139). She also begins to understand that four little words from Lisa, “I hope you die” (p. 110), changed everything. Words do hurt, yet words can also heal. As she contemplates the power of words, trying to understand how one can truly know what someone else means, she realizes Lisa is alone with the power of her spoken words at summer camp, and Lisa has been silent throughout the summer exchange of emails and letters.

    Kana has grown from an angry adolescent who blamed Ruth for her present circumstances to an adolescent who sees and accepts her own responsibility in “not doing anything.” She decides to write to Jake, Ruth’s friend and the reason for Lisa’s jealousy. Jake has had his own struggle with Ruth’s death—she took her life “on his family’s land while he slept inside his room not fifty yards away.” With the encouragement of her grandmother, Kana writes to Jake. In his response, Jake reveals his own guilt in not having done more to help Ruth, “I try not to hate Lisa for what she did but it’s hard I try not to hate myself, too I try not to hate all of us for what we didn’t do…” (p. 233). When Kana tells her Baachan about Jake’s letter, she suggests Kana should tell Jake to write Lisa. This time, via email, Kana tells Jake she is concerned about Lisa’s quietness and how she thinks “words from him might help” (p. 236).

    The thing is, even when you know the signs of suicide, even when those signs are right in front of your face, most people do not recognize them. It is only in hindsight those signs become crystal clear. And it is during the quiet times when the guilt begins to overwhelm. Those are the dangerous times. Those are the times when the pain becomes so great, the only release may be to do the same. The only way out of that dark corner is with the support of family, friends, counselors, therapists, and Lisa did not have that at summer camp. She was alone with her thoughts of those last words spoken to Ruth and she found herself in that same dark corner from which she could not escape.

    When Kana hears the news of Lisa’s death, she retreats into herself, but after several days, Baachan tells her she must, “start her body moving…your mind will follow” (p.281). Baachan takes Kana for a walk to the temple where they pray and she says to Kana, “suicide can spread…like a virus…you have to stop it put up barriers” (p.285).

    The summer has come to an end and Kana, with her relatives, go on a last outing to big Buddha. She prays for Ruth and Lisa to find peace. Upon returning home, she attends a memorial service for Lisa, delayed until the friends all returned. It is at this point where Kana comes full circle. She has gone from the girl who experience denial, anger, and guilt to a girl who embraces her heritage, accepts responsibilities, and is working toward becoming as Jakes says, a better person. To Ruth’s and Lisa’s mothers, she proposes building a gazebo where they will honor Ruth’s and Lisa’s life in the Japanese tradition of Obon. There, at the gazebo, they will remember Ruth and Lisa; they will “share our hopes dreams goals all the ways we promise to survive another year without you both…” (p. 316).

    My response to this novel is a week late. I have to admit, it was a tremendous struggle. In the above response, there is very little of my voice, with the exception of the paragraph beginning, “The thing is….” And, here is the thing—my 26 year old son took his own life two years ago. Many of you knew Patrick, watched him grow up, saw him develop from a goofy 5 year old to a gifted artist and athlete to a world traveler, speaker of many languages, and published author. In between those spaces, was a young man who faced many demons—more than one serious autoimmune illness, the end of his dream to play baseball, his uncertainty about where he fit in this sometimes unjust world. Like Kana, Lisa, and Jake, those of us who knew and loved Patrick are left to pick up the pieces—my husband said on the day Patrick took his own life, “Nothing will ever be normal again.” And, he is right; yet, we have learned that we have to create a new normal; a space without Patrick, but always filled with our memories of him. We are fortunate in that he left behind a legacy of friends, artwork, and writings. We miss him intensely, we long to be with him, but with the help of others, we slowly crawl out of our own dark corners. I think we—his father, brother, and mother—will take away a lesson from Kana and each year, we will pledge to survive another year; each year we will share our hopes, dreams, and goals; and each year we will celebrate the time we had with Patrick and all the joys he brought into our life.

    In Memory of:
    Patrick William Pritchard
    December 12, 1983-January 30, 2010

  3. G.Prichard & M.Ebersole says:

    This novel in verse takes the reader through the emotional struggle experienced by Kana, a half-Japanese, half-Jewish eight grader who is sent from her home in New York to spend the summer working on a mikan orange orchard with her relatives in Japan. Her mother hopes that there she can “reflect in the place of your ancestors” to face the role that her clique may have played in triggering the suicide of one of her peers. Readers hear the push and pull, from denial and blame to guilt and anger, in Kana’s head as she speaks to Ruth, the possibly bipolar girl who committed suicide. Kana also works through her own yin and yang and comes to a deeper understanding of her bicultural identity while building a relationship with her Japanese relatives.

    The author presents many opportunities for readers to discuss some heavy topics and issues including bullying, being a passive bystander, guilt associated with suicide, dealing with mental illnesses, and developing one’s bicultural identity. One of the powerful issues in the story for me was the heavy sense of guilt and blame placed upon the clique of girls for bullying Ruth. Kana feels that she “didn’t do anything” and must learn not to hate herself for actions she took against or didn’t take to stand up for Ruth. Teens often don’t realize the impact their words have on one another. Kana explains, “when a person says certain things, they don’t mean the words they say really.” This caused me to wonder: How do we know when a person really means the words they say? How do we know when a person doesn’t mean the words they say? How do we teach children about the power of the words that we use? Who must take responsibility for helping this generation develop a sense of empathy? Kana blames the school for not being proactive and teaching them about bipolar and depression which led me to question, Is it the schools responsibility for teaching students about mental illness and how to deal with it? If the school doesn’t teach students, then who will?

    Jake, who was the root of the jealousy by the girls in the clique, had empathy for Ruth. The author states that Jake had a rapport (which interestingly is doesn’t rhyme, but is spelled similarly to the word support) with Ruth. The word rapport means “a close and harmonious relationship in which the people or groups concerned understand each other’s feelings or ideas and communicate well.” He was able to have a close and harmonious relationship and understand Ruth because of his personal experience with his sister’s bipolar condition. I wondered how the others who didn’t have Jake’s experience, would react to Ruth if they did know about Ruth’s condition beforehand? In other words, if Kana and her friends knew about Ruth’s mental illness would this “uncaring generation” be empathic or would that have led to a greater sense of ostracism for someone like Ruth?

    I also felt that it was interesting that the parents of all the girls involved in the clique all sent their children away for the summer to deal with the problem, suggesting that they did not know how to deal with the problems their daughters faced. Kana was sent away, but the difference for her was that she was sent to a place where she had physical labor to distract her, a place to learn about her cultural identity and the support from her family. Being surrounded by people who supported her was a significant part of her healing process which enabled her to forgive and understand.

    I do think that a book such as this one can lead to powerful and critical discussions for adolescents. Holly Thompson’s website also includes a book group discussion guide with questions that can help teachers and students talk through these important issues and ideas.

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