Study Guide

The Orange Houses Language and Communication

By Paul Griffin

Language and Communication

Her mother had given the young woman her first name, but for her new life Fatima chose the last, a French word meaning to hope. She taught herself the language from schoolbooks that somehow escaped burning—English too. (2.5) 

While names aren't a big deal for anyone else, Fatima's is <em>super </em>significant. It tells us about her resilient personality, and how she continues to hope regardless of the obstacles in her way. It also shows us the fact that she's a language wizard, nailing three languages and counting.

The half explosion tore the girl apart but didn't kill her instantly. Jimmi got to her on her third to last breath. As she died she asked him something in a language he didn't understand. The wounded man next to her coughed up, "She said, 'I know I am going into a coffin, but where will my face live?'" (4.5) 

Jimmi's encounter with the little girl and the bomb is confusing enough without a foreign language in the mix to boot. It's significant that Jimmi needs someone to translate for him, because he doesn't understand <em>anything </em>about his current situation or how this could happen. 

George sighed. He turned from Jimmi to Fatima and sized her up with suspicious eyes. "Any teaching experience?" Back in the refugee camp Fatima taught English to the younger girls. She lived to teach. She nodded. (5.41) 

Fatima is used to teaching kids different languages, and that's what she really enjoys. Her knowledge of different languages highlights her open-minded nature and her ability to learn about different cultures quickly. 

Taking shelter in the near silence, Mik looked back at the papergirl. She was waving. No, she was signing, HELLO, GOOD-BYE, I LOVE YOU. (6.59) 

Of all the sayings that Fatima could learn in sign language, this is the one that she knows. It's also the phrase that she writes to her sister in her letter. This is meaningful because it shows us how close she is to her sister, as well as how close Mik becomes to her, too. 

Mik nodded. She wanted to ask the girl how she knew sign, but that would require a whachamacallit, conversation. "Nice day," she said and signed as she hurried away. (9.20) 

The fact that Fatima uses sign language to communicate with Fatima is special to Mik. People don't know Mik's language, and it's Fatima's knowledge of sign language that draws Mik to her in the first place. 

"Bombs deafened some of the children back home," Fatima said as she and Mik walked the back way along the tracks. "My sister and I watched the woman from the UN teach them sign, but only for one day before a raid split the camps. Perhaps someday when the fighting ends I will return home. For now I am so lucky to live in these beautiful United States." (9.37) 

As Mik learns about Fatima's future, it comes as no surprise that it's tied up in language. Fatima yearns to know more about people and doesn't rely on her own language to get her through. 

"Do not fear, little one. My door is always open to you. How would I say this in sign?" 

"Why you want to know?" 

"For when I return to my country. To teach the children. Show me." 

Mik showed her. Fatima was a quick study. (13.14-17) 

Foreshadowing alert: Fatima thinks she'll use her sign language to teach kids from her home country, but we're thinking she plans on returning under slightly different circumstance than she winds up finding herself in. Her insistence on learning a new language shows us that she still thinks about the kids in her hometown, even when she's far away from them, though, and that she wants to give them exciting new opportunities through language. 

While Mik was in the bathroom Fatima studied a free Spanish paper. Articles were translated into English on the opposite page. Fatima taught herself the language as she hunted for news from the east. (26.2) 

Add another language to Fatima's resume because there's just no stopping this girl. We can't help but wonder why she learns so many different languages instead of mastering one. Perhaps it's so she can soak up as much knowledge as she can—or maybe it's to be as diverse as possible. 

With the sign my sister Mik taught me, they will ask me to lead a new school. There are many who will be eager to know what I have learned here. This is a remarkable opportunity for me. I will send you many letters and tell you of my progress. (42.7) 

It's a small comfort to Mik that Fatima will get to use her new sign language skills when she gets back home. Fatima taught Mik a lot about friendship and being herself, and Mik taught Fatima about another language.

"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)

The final words of the book are a question. (For more on this, check out the "What's Up With the Ending?" section.) They allow us to make up our own ending to the novel, but they also highlight how important all language is to the characters. Mik wants her mom to take Jimmi seriously and listen to the guy instead of just writing him off. The question is: Does she? 

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