In case you missed it, there's a hanging at the end of this book, and since we find out about it right away, um, it kind of hangs over the whole story (terrible pun, we know). Right out of the gate we're told: "An hour after Jimmi wrote the poem the vigilantes hung him" (pre.9). Way to start us off, Griffin.
Even though we know Jimmi's fate right away, though, we're not sure why or how this hanging happens, and instead we spend the rest of the book trying to piece it together. This, Shmoopers, gives The Orange Houses its foreboding tone. We know something's about to go down; we're just waiting for it to take place.
As if that weren't enough, each chapter hints at what's to come. For instance, Chapter 10 opens with: "The Orange Houses, Wednesday, twenty-one days before the hanging, 7:00pm…" (10.1). Gulp. Set your watches, because Jimmi will be hanged in 5… 4… 3… 2…
It's no coincidence that Fatima, Mik, and Jimmi are all teenagers during our story. Jimmi is the oldest of the bunch at eighteen, but Fatima and Mik are only sixteen and fifteen, respectively. The characters' youth allows them to take risks and act impulsively, but it's not all fun and games for our main crew—in fact, the gang has to deal with everything from drugs to immigration laws to bombs.
It's this coming to terms with the darker issues the world has to offer, though, that allows these three to grow up and learn a lot about themselves. Even though this book deals with darker themes than some other young adult lit novels, it's certainly directly toward audiences in their teens, just like our characters.
For a book called The Orange Houses, we were expecting more, um, orange. Mik tells us straight-up where the title comes from:
The Orange Houses were not orange. They were beaten brick the color of the sky this drizzly dusk. Some long-dead architect Casper Orange slapped together the nine jail-like towers way back when. Small, deep-set windows grayed cinderblock hallways noisy with need. (3.2)
We've got a whole lot to say about the houses over in the "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" section, but for now we'll just say that they work as a sort of misrepresentation. And in a book where one main character is deported from her dream, another main character is hung because of misinterpreted actions, and a third main character largely understands the world as a place to hide from, we'd say the title sets us up with a pretty important idea to this book: failed expectations.
The last words of the book are a question. After Jimmi shows up rambling, Mik's mom says:
"I better call the ambulance." Mom put the phone to her ear. "How that Jimmi does go on and on."
"Yeah," Mik said. "Will you listen to him?" (45.30-31)
Hmm… why would the book end on a question?
Our bet is that the author wants us to decide what happens next. We're bummed that Fatima gets deported and Jimmi accidentally has a hand in it, and we're even more down in the dumps that Jimmi disappears and doesn't want much help. Yet Mik gives us some hope. She starts using her hearing aids, after all, plus she stands up for Jimmi with her mom. True, we've seen this before—but something tells us that Mik's mom might be more willing to listen to her daughter after the ordeal she's just been through.
So, it's up to you to decide. What does Mik's mom say to her daughter? Over to you, Shmoopers.
It's not just Jay-Z who has an "Empire State of Mind," and for Fatima, New York City is the ultimate ticket to freedom. Why else would she risk going to a city full of immigration police? Most of the other refugees are off to Camden specifically because there are few police there. Yet:
[…] at sixteen, [Fatima] was headed where all told her not to go: New York. She had to visit the Statue of Liberty. (2.5)
The fact that Fatima deliberately goes to the Big Apple when it's riskier shows us how important our setting is. NYC is associated with opportunity, promise, and freedom—associations that are perhaps best exemplified by the Statue of Liberty (so hop on over to the "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" section to read up on it). And insofar as this book deals with all of these ideas, New York is a natural choice for its setting.
Importantly, though, we also see another side of New York City in the Orange Houses. They are "small, deep-set windows grayed cinderblock hallways noisy with need" (3.2), and while we don't know much else about them (other than that they are in the Bronx), we don't really need to. In a book set in a city that stands as a beacon of hope and possibility, the Orange Houses are a stark reminder of just how hard it is to rise to the top, of just how hard people can work to barely make it.
New York City might be full of promise to Fatima, but the reality is that it has problems of its own. Mik and her family are struggling to make ends meet, while Jimmi struggles constantly and is even attacked. It's complicated—just like the path to freedom is.
From the get-go, The Orange Houses has us intrigued. After all, we learn there's a hanging at the end of the book—but we have no clue why. It's this non-linear structure that makes The Orange Houses a bit of a hike. Sure, if you think about it, the plot isn't particularly complex—it basically tells the tale of three teenagers—yet it's all the subtlety and hidden clues about what's going down that makes this story a little on the complicated side.
That said, once you get used to the author's style and hint-dropping, you'll be sure to follow along. Like we said, this one's only a bit of a climb.
It might seem like a contradiction to say someone's style is straightforward and poetic. After all, isn't the whole point of poetry to give an abundance of description and detail? Well, not exactly. Check out this description of Fatima and Mik walking home together:
Laughing arm in arm they skipped the strip across from the O Houses. The strip's lights airbrushed the night red and green. (22.2)
Notice how the lights take on human action (a.k.a. personification) by airbrushing the sky? We know that lights aren't actually getting out their spray brushes, but it's a totally poetic way of describing what's happening. Plus, it gives us a mental image so we know what the street looks like to the girls.
Yet there are other times where Griffin ditches the poetry for a more straightforward style. Take his intro to Jimmi, for example:
Jimmi's story: no Pops, his Moms a slave to the pipe. She put Jimmi in and out of foster care. (4.3)
This is as straightforward as it gets—there's no room for confusion about Jimmi's background, and we feel as though Griffin is talking directly to us, just like our friends would. This mix of straightforward sentences and more poetic ones that flows through the story keeps us interested, blending a mix of straight-up facts with evocative descriptions to help us both keep a firm grasp on what's going on, while also having a real feel for our characters and their experiences.
You probably already guessed that the orange houses are important since they're in the title and all. But check out what Mik tells us about the houses she calls home:
<em>The Orange Houses were not orange. They were beaten brick the color of the sky this drizzly dusk. Some long-dead architect Casper Orange slapped together the nine jail-like towers way back when. Small, deep-set windows grayed cinderblock hallways noisy with need.</em> (3.2)
Okay. So the houses aren't orange—the guy who built them's last name was—and everything about them is pretty depressing. Mik even compares them to jail, for Pete's sake. And that "hallways noisy with need" bit? Yeah, everyone who lives in the Orange Houses is poor. And that means Mik and her family are, too.
This doesn't just give us a bit of economic info about Mik, though—it helps paint a picture of the world she lives in, along with Jimmi and Fatima. These are not high rollers, but people barely scraping by, and importantly, Mik is the most well-off of the group. Fatima can't believe she and her mom have a whole apartment instead of just a room, and Jimmi, well, Jimmi lives in a cave.
To Mik, the houses are a dump, a reminder of how much her mom struggles to keep them barely afloat. To Fatima, however, they are a dream. These conflicting attitudes on the houses demonstrate the differences in the girls' lived experiences: Fatima sees the houses as representing the potential for a brighter future, whereas Mik only sees the poverty that's in front of her. And because of this, the houses also represent perspective: They may not be orange, and they may not be awesome, but they are what you make of them.
From the moment she lands in America, Fatima wants to see the Statue of Liberty. It's pretty much number one on her to-do list (getting a job and such aside), and she's completely undeterred in her goal, despite everyone claiming it's just a lousy tourist trap. In her defense, Lady Liberty has stood as a symbol of welcome to immigrants for generations, so it's not like Fatima—as an immigrant herself—is randomly identifying with it.
When Fatima and Mik take a boat ride to see the monument together, though, things get choppy. Literally. The water is too rough and the weather too stormy to get to the island:
An announcement came over the PA system: Due to the inclement weather, we will be forced to turn the boat around. This is as close as we get to Liberty today, folks. Take pictures while you can. (21.36)
Hmm… something makes us think this isn't just about the weather. Fatima wants to see the Statue of Liberty because it symbolizes freedom—in coming to America, she hopes she'll finally be free, safely away from war and the troubles of her homeland. Instead, though, she meets new trouble, mainly from immigration. In the country illegally, her freedom stands on shaky foundation, and eventually crumbles when Jimmi accidentally reveals her status to someone who turns her in.
Just like Fatima never makes it to the Statue of Liberty, so, too, she never makes it to the life of freedom she dreams of in America. She's deported before she can shore up her citizenship, sent back with just a glimpse of Lady Liberty and just a taste of life away from the trouble she's grown up knowing.
It's not until Fatima's on the plane home that she sees more than just the tip or toe of the statue: "Fatima watched until the plane was closest to Liberty, and then she closed her eyes so her Mother of Exiles would never fade into the distance" (44.4). This symbol of freedom is her last mental image of America, and she tries to preserve it in her mind forever, carrying her belief in the hope and opportunity of America back to Africa with her, even though it didn't materialize for her the way she once hoped.
We've got ourselves an outside narrator in The Orange Houses, someone who can weave in and out of any character's consciousness at will. Take when we first meet Jimmi, for example:
Jimmi Sixes the street poet eyed the bathroom mirror. He picked up the glitter lipstick the cross dresser down the hall left on the sink ledge. Over his cracked reflection he wrote: WHY? (4.2)
Notice how we get to see what Jimmi's doing even though he's alone? That's because our trusty narrator has access to the characters' thoughts and actions that no one else can see.
It's the same with Fatima:
Fatima savored each French fry as she wrote her sister a letter. (7.2)
Here, we get to learn how she feels about the food (she loves it—that's the whole savoring bit) even though she doesn't say a word about it. Cool, right? Also: french fries.
Finally, with Mik, we hear what she's thinking all the time, since she doesn't speak much at first. For instance:
She pictured herself soaring over the Bronx, clouds vaporizing, the sky empty but for the bright blue in it. (9.3)
No one knows what Mik's thinking, but our trusty narrator is capable of slipping into her thoughts, sharing them with us to help us understand this often-silent girl.
The moral of the story if this: Our narrator hovers outside the story, visiting each character in turn and, in doing so, offering us different perspectives throughout the novel. We're not just focused on Jimmi or Fatima or Mik; we learn what's going down with all three of these characters. The result is a pretty complete patchwork picture of the terrible events that frame the story, as well as a complex rendering of each main character.
There's a lot of dark stuff going down in the opening pages of this book. Don't believe us? Try this: (1) We know someone gets hanged; (2) we learn about Jimmi's time overseas watching a little girl get blown up; (3) Fatima sneaks into the country illegally and has to find work under the radar; and (4) Mik is hearing-impaired and mocked at school. Yep, that's pretty dark. We get a bunch of problems in the beginning that we're hoping will resolve by the end of the book.
Fatima makes paper angels for some kids at the VA hospital and gives one to Jimmi, which is the start of their friendship together. What's more important? It's also the beginning of Fatima's relationship with Mik. Together, these girls break down stereotypes and help one another come out of their shells—Fatima encourages Mik to get new hearing aids, and Mik allows Fatima to trust someone again. The book might start out dark, but with these friendships, everyone officially has something to lose.
Things really pick up when Fatima goes with Mik and her family to get immigration papers and pave the way for her sister to come to America. At first, Fatima doesn't want to go, but Mik convinces her to let them help her out, and Fatima finally accepts. The only catch is that Fatima has to stay on the DL until her papers come through. We know as soon as the immigration guy warns her to stay out of trouble that something's bound to go wrong.
It's just like when our moms warn us not to eat the last cookie. We just know that somehow, we're going to end up with a few crumbs on our shirt and an empty plate in our hand. Except, you know, higher stakes.
The falling action heads our way when Jimmi stands up for Mik and the mob attacks him. Fatima comes to his rescue, and the hanging is over before we know what hit us. The pace of this section picks up so we go through it pretty quickly with our hearts pounding in our chests—and they skip a beat when an immigration officer comes and arrests Fatima. It turns out morals and guts mean nothing when it comes to where you get to live, and she's taken to the detention center, ready for deportation.
In the end, Fatima is sent back to Africa without ever seeing the Statue of Liberty up close (unless you count from the plane on the trip back home). Mik is down in the dumps over losing her friend, but she finally decides to use her new hearing aids. They're not the most comfortable, but she's sure she'll get used to them.