Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Book Review: One Day and One Amazing Morning on Orange Street by Joanne Rocklin (2011)

The focal point of this beautifully written novel is the Valencia orange tree that grows on the empty lot on Orange Street. Everyone in the neighborhood has some relationship to the tree. Ali, Bunny, and Leandra hold meetings of the Girls With Long Hair club beneath the tree. Ali's little brother, Edgar swings on the tree, with the help of his babysitter, Manny. Robert, who is not allowed to join the girls' club, conducts missions behind the vines. Long ago, it was also the place where Ms. Snoops, an elderly neighbor, played with her best friend, Gertrude. Each of these characters becomes troubled when, one morning, an orange cone appears at the edge of the lot, later accompanied by a mysterious stranger. They speculate as to what this means for the future of the tree, and the future of Orange Street itself.

It's hard to properly describe this book, because its true merits are in the artistic telling of the story. Though not much happens for most of the book, the innermost secrets, wishes, desires, fears, and hopes of these characters are expressed in beautiful language, with very carefully selected words. Robert's desire to perform magic, Bunny's constant worries over her mother's safety on plane trips, and Ali's hopes for her brother, whose brain tumor left him unable to speak, are all described in fresh, new language, with true understanding of what it's like to be caught in between childhood and adolescence. 

It is the way the story is told, not the story itself, that make it remarkable, and made me want to turn every page. I was taken back to my own summers spent out in the neighborhood, hanging out with the neighbor kids, creating clubs on various themes, and investigating my own share of suspicious changes on the street. This book captures and distills exactly what it means to be a kid, and what it means to value community, tradition, and history, even as kids grow up and move beyond childish games and ideas.

Because I really don't think I can do this book the justice it deserves, I'll let it speak for itself. Here are just a couple of passages I enjoyed:

That morning Ms. Snoops noticed the orange cone, too, she went outdoors to deadhead her marigolds. She didn't like to disturb those hard-working 9-1-1 operators unless it was serious (especially so early in the day), but she knew that ominous orange cone could only mean one thing.

"Murder!" cried Ms. Snoops. She glanced around to make sure no one had heard her, then hurried inside to make that early morning phone call.

I am so impressed by the way Rocklin depicts Ms. Snoops's failing memory. Her thought process is amusing, but it's clear the author isn't making fun of her, and that the reader is meant to have sympathy for the elderly woman who is so often confused by simple daily occurrences.

And Ruff didn't know he was keeping the orange tree healthy, when he did his business under the tree.

But Ruff knew so many other things, that morning:
He knew he was sleepy.
He knew the earth smelled of stinky fertilizer and worms.
It was warm under his nose, but cooler where his belly touched the ground.
Something tiny, maybe a ladybug, was tickling his left ear.
A small rat raced through the weeds.
Mitzi the cat was watching somewhere.
Robert, eating a PB & J sandwich behind the vine, was watching too.
Ants scurried over and under the hollowed-out orange skins.
A wasp buzzed above Ruff's head, but not close enough to sting.
A squirrel held her breath on the branch above the wasp.
Hummingbirds whirred and hovered, like tiny helicopters among the blossoms, feeding their babies again and again.
And above them all sat Bunny/Bonita, lost in her book, her wristwatch ticking.
And also Ruff was thirsty.
And he had to pee again.
And he was much too deliciously sleepy to get up.
All that, Ruff knew. 

I love the poetic style of these one-sentence paragraphs, and the way the dog's observations appeal so perfectly to all five senses.

This is such a well-written and interesting book - I really recommend it to everyone who loves kids' books, and especially to those kids - boys and girls - who seek out and appreciate realistic fiction.

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