15 yr old Tamika (Mik) Sykes is partially deaf. She likes to turn off her hearing aid and shut the would out.
18 yr old Jimmi Sixes is a war veteran, trying to find a reason to live
16 yr old Fatima is a refugee from Africa. All she wants is a new beginning and to see the Statue of Liberty.
I didn't connect with these characters. This disconnection has a lot to do with my not believing the Black characters created by Griffin a white author. A characters believability is subjective. When a Black character doesn't feel right, I lack the vocabulary to say way that is, something is simply not ringing true. So I usually stay clear of Black characters created by White authors that don't hit the mark for me, since I can't put into words what doesn't work. My problem with The Orange Houses goes well beyond the characters. I want to take a moment to point out a few things. Maybe people will think twice about throwing out words like authentic so easily.
Fatima is an African refugee. The author never specifies a country. Last time I checked Africa was still a continent. Griffin not naming a country of origin, like what difference does it make, got me thinking about author Chimamanda Adichie recent talk on the danger of a single story.
I thought Fatima had a lot of money for a refugee.
"Fatima gave the man half of what she had left after the boat ride: five hundred dollars. (pg.13)
She finds are way to the Bronx, and the Orange Houses. While exploring her new neighborhood on the first day, Fatima meets Jimmi. He is impressed by the angels Fatima makes out of newspaper. Jimmi decides to introduce Fatima to Mik. I knew eventually the characters might become acquainted but this was too quick. Rather then allow it to happen naturally, Griffin forces the issue. Fatima and Mik become fast friends. I can't believe in a friendship when I question its beginnings.
The author decides to reveal a pivotal moment in the book before the story even begins, Jimmi's hanging. At the beginning of each chapter there is a countdown.
" Bronx West, a high school classroom, a late October Thursday morning twenty-seven days before the hanging"
The author was probably trying to quickly grab and shock readers with the news of a hanging. The countdown did nothing for me. In order for me to be drawn in by a forthcoming act , I have to believe its possible. Hanging - there is so much pain, and loss in that word for Black people. There isn't an altercation or misunderstanding that would make me believe that a hanging would take place in a Bronx as payback or street justice.
Mik goes to a tough school in The Bronx. A girl, named Shanelle is always harassing Mik. It escalates when the new boy, Jaekwon plays attention to Mik, who does her best to avoid Shanelle. When school ends Fatima is always waiting to walk Mik home. One day Shanelle decides its time that she and her crew gave Mik a beat down. Though Shanelle's crew is so memorized by Fatima's origami that they have a change of heart.
"As Mik stepped through the school doors into the front courtyard a rock zipped past Fatima's head. Crew Shanelle rolled up the sidewalk. "Deaf bitch can't get no real friends, she stuck with a Zulu terrorist." Shanelle got in Fatima's face. "You ain't nothin." Fatima reached into her shawl. Shanelle reached for her back pocket, a bulge that said box cutter. Fatima drew her hand from her scarf. A flock of Day Glo butterflies spun in the breeze. In the afternoon light their sequined wings dazzled Sha's posse. The girls fell on the butterflies as if they were spilled pinata candy. "It's newspaper, one girl said. "Painted newspaper." She drew her phone, keyed it for a new entry. "Yo," she said to Fatime, " I got birthday party coming for my niece. We was gonna get a clown, but y'all gonna work it instead. My sistuh got cash money, yo. What's y'all's numbuh?" (pg.97)
After Shanelle's first attack got thwarted by Day Glo butterflies, she tries again a few days later with a new crew.
"Mik headed for the exit. A girl cut her off, flashed a box cutter. Mik spun back for the principals office. Another girl with a box cutter. The only way out was the back door. She ran for it, blasted into the garbage bay. Between the Dumpsters a third girl waited for her. Mik sprinted for the park woods. When she turned back, the three girls had become thirty. All were new recruits, girls not cool enough to be in Sha's previous crew. They were eager to please her with their chains and broken bottles." (pg.113)
Jimmi comes to Mik's rescue. Shanelle's crew gives chase. Mik rides on Jimmi's back to the safety of the train tunnels. The two hide out underground.
So the author wants me to believe that thirty girls armed with box cutters are chasing one girl in the middle of the afternoon. Why is Jimmi the only one who heard all the noise that Shanelle's crew was making. Where is everyone?
Forty- nine mintues before the hanging Jimmi is charged with abducting Mik, its all over the news. I know its unprofessional to use a certain three letters together when talking about a book, but I've never claimed to be a professional, so WTF really. No one sees 30 girls armed with box cutters but they see Jimmi with Mik. I was floored by this.
The people spot Jimmi and Mik as they try and make it to the hospital.
"They came down on him fast, tens of them, seeming like a hundreds as they ripped Mik from him. Pinned against a truck. He broke free with a pair of punches that jacked the men into a fury. Their hatred stunned him. They were his neighbors, his friends. Why now did they kick him? He called out to them by name, and they struck him harder. Somebody kicked the back of his skull. Numbness spread over and through him. String 'im up," said the lead vigilante, some gang banger. They roped him by his ankles, threw the line over the street lamp's arm and heaved him high." (pgs. 128-129)
Griffin was at least smart enough not to have vigilantes (the author's word) hang, Jimmi, the 18 yr old war veteran by his neck. Though I am still wondering where the rope came from. Streetlamps are pretty high. Where was everyone else while this was going on? No one had a cell phone?
Out of the blue vigilantes is ridiculous. Jimmi and Mik are from the same neighborhood. Black men couldn't so easily beat and hang another Black man they know. They know Jimmi's an 18 year old war veteran is trying to kick a drug habit. They know Jimmi's girlfriend had a late term miscarriage and committed suicide while he was still at war. These men know all this and yet they still attack. Unbelievable.
I could continue but I won't. I am not sure of what angers me more this book or the reviews calling it authentic and real. It scares me to think that someone in small town USA, will read The Orange Houses because of one of these reviews and believe its a good literary representation of teen urban life.