Hardcover, 336 pages
Published February 22nd 2011 by Delacorte Books for Young Readers
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.
This verse novel by Holly Thompson flips the perspective on bullying and shows what happens to the bullies when their bullying has tragic consequences. Thompson’s novel follows Kana’s displacement from New York to an orange orchard in Japan, her mother’s place of birth and home. The novel is particularly successful in portraying the various degrees of culture shock felt by Kana and how immersion into her new life affects her feelings of guilt over what happened to her classmate.
The verse is sparse and not so much lyrical as restrained. The style works particularly well for the themes explored in this novel: the cohering of an identity and the consequence of actions. I liked how Kana starts off defensive but gradually realizes and regrets the role she played in the things that happened. When tragedy strikes again, Kana is better equipped to handle it and the conclusion is more life-affirming than one would think.
On a more analytical note, the book also criticizes, to a minor extent, the parenting by Westerners and with good reason as you will see if you read the novel. On the whole, I liked this novel. It has a gentle feel, a sort of awkward coming of age tone that fits in perfectly with the main character. Recommended.