Tangerine is definitely full of suspense. We know something bad happened in Paul's past, but we don't know what—and neither does he. As he explains, "The whole truth is—I feel very weird. But I can't say why. I can't remember why. Not yet" (3.4.67-68). So, obviously, we're constantly wondering along with Paul: What happened? What does it have to do with Erik? And could something similar happen again?
The suspense intensifies when we learn about Luis's, and then later Antoine's, plans to get revenge on Erik for his violence. What's going to happen? How will Erik react? When the confrontation gets postponed, we're gnawing our fingernails waiting to see what goes down. Paul is right there with us, writing in his journal: "I sat down at the kitchen table and tried to think. Could it still happen to Erik and Arthur? When? How?" (3.5.5).
And once Paul's memory has been restored, and revenge has been taken on Erik, there's still the matter of whether Erik and Arthur will get in trouble for Luis's death. Paul wonders, "Should I come right out and say, Actually, Mom, […] (h)e was killed by Arthur Bauer, on orders from Erik. What would she do if she heard that? […] Would she do what she always did back in Houston—take my temperature and threaten to call the doctor?" (3.6.23).
We're kept guessing until the very end, when everything is—finally—resolved.
The very first paragraph of the book lets us know how creepy the tone is going to be: "The house looked strange. It was completely empty now, and the door was flung wide open, like something wild had just escaped from it. Like it was the empty, two-story tomb of some runaway zombie" (Prologue.1.1).
Yeah. If Tangerine were any darker, it would be a full-fledged horror novel. You've got intimidation, bullying, violence, and even death—not to mention that Mother Nature is also out to get everyone there, sending wave after wave of apocalyptic, murderous natural disasters. When Mike Costello is killed by lightning, we hear from Erik that "(t)he whole left side of his hair was burned off. Singed right off, you know?" (1.10.6).
Not dark enough for you? Well, later, Arthur and Erik laugh about it, calling poor Mike "Mohawk Man." It doesn't get much darker than that, folks.
Well, duh. This is a journal, so of course it's going to be personal.
But it's more than that—we feel deeply connected to Paul's interior life. We know not just his thoughts and feelings, but also his deepest fears, his despair at his family situation, and his frustration at his inability to remember his past. We feel bad for the guy, and he holds nothing back from us.
Take a day when he really could have been bragging, the day he helped save his friends from the sinkhole. Instead, he's brutally honest: "I'm still afraid of Erik. I'm afraid of Arthur now, too. But today I wasn't a coward, and that counts for something" (1.17.14). This honesty makes us feel close to Paul—and makes the tone super personal.
Let's start with the obvious. Tangerine is a book about a seventh grader, written for an audience of middle schoolers. But it's also Young Adult Lit because it addresses issues that are super important to young adults— like bullying, discrimination, family relationships, friendship, and being truthful. Do you have thoughts and feelings about these issues?
Yeah, we thought so.
If this book isn't one of the most dramatic of family dramas out there, then we don't know what is. Tangerine is all about the interplay between Paul's family members. Paul's mom and dad worship the ground Erik walks on and so little attention to Paul that Erik can violently disable Paul for life, on purpose, and not be punished for it. And the infuriating part is that his parents don't seem to realize that they're favoring Erik.
But even though the Fisher family's behavior is extreme, it's still believable. It's still relatable. We can still understand how Paul feels, and maybe even pick up a few pointers on how to be a decent brother (or sister) along the way. Like, talk with your siblings, and stick by family members when they need you.
Oh yeah, and how about not killing your little brother's friends? That'd be a good one, too.
And we don't mean Paul finally being old enough to get his driver's license.
By the end of the book, Paul is a much different kid than he was in the beginning. He starts out afraid—afraid of moving (remember the zombies?), afraid of Erik, afraid of his own past. But his heroic actions at school when the sinkhole opens up make him braver. And his victories and experiences with the War Eagles, including fighting the freeze, help him to feel tougher, too. Finally, Luis's tragic death makes him able to stand up to Erik for the first time ever, and unlocks the dark memory that he has been repressing since kindergarten.
Even though it's only been a few months, he's grown up a lot. As he heads off to his new school, Paul is happier, much more confident, and stronger.
You're thinking Southern belles gone Goth, right? Wearing black petticoated dresses and lacy black parasols, like some gothic lolitas?
Sorry. Southern gothic lit features freaky, even supernatural-seeming events…like, say, a giant sinkhole opening up under a school? Or a lightning-afflicted town, where muck fires burn and kids are killed from all the electrical storms? Or, hmm, maybe giant avenging swarms of killer mosquitoes and ravenous termites? Yeah, like those things.
A major element of the Southern Gothic is dealing with social and racial issues in the American South. Do we have that in Tangerine? Check.
Remember Joey's racist outburst at Tangerine Middle School? The whole book revolves around Lake Windsor vs. Tangerine: the haves vs. the have-nots; those who live in brand new houses in fancy new developments vs. those who live in old homes and work their citrus groves; and, of course, whites vs. Hispanics.
Of course, by the end of the book, we have a pretty good idea which community is really "poor."
Tangerine is an all-around awesome title for this book. It's actually got a triple meaning—that's three times the tangerine-y goodness!
So if you peel back the thick orange skin of this title and take a peek inside, you'll see that there are many segments to its meaning—many seeds of great ideas hidden inside—and it's definitely not just pulp fiction.
The last journal entry in Tangerine is one page long. In it, Paul describes his first morning drive to his new school, St. Anthony's.
Almost everything about this trip is symbolic. As Paul and his dad step outside, the smoke from the muck fire is actually blowing away from them for once, so we know that things are finally going Paul's way. The sun is rising above some mountainous-looking clouds, just like hope and calm conquering the stormy, intimidating turmoil of the past semester.
As they leave Lake Windsor, they pass the tree that has been planted for Mike Costello. Paul notices that it looks strong and healthy enough, but it's still supported by stakes. His dad explains that these are "just temporary. Until it can stand on its own" (3.16.5). You know, just like Paul, who needs just a little more support to stand on his own.
And they head east, towards the sun, as the sky glows around them. The citrus trees remind Paul of Luis, and he rolls down the car window to drink in the scent—"the scent of a golden dawn" (3.16.7).
That's exactly the way Luis described the smell of the citrus groves that he dedicated his life to, the smell that he and Paul both loved. Now Paul carries that piece of Luis within himself, and is headed for a much better future, full of hope and promise, and, of course, tangerines.
Let's get the easy one out of the way, first: the action place in the recent past, probably in the 1990s. Even though it's never actually specified in the book, you can figure out the date by the lack of cell phones, and the fact that the narrator still feels he has to explain what the Internet is to his readers.
Now, on to the meat (or, er, the fruit?): where does most of the action in Tangerine take place? Why, in Tangerine County, Florida, of course! Which… doesn't actually exist. There is really an Orange County and a Citrus County, though, so you know, tomay-to, tomah-to.
Actually, the story starts out at Paul Fisher's old house in Houston, TX, right as the Fisher fam is moving out. But everything else happens in Tangerine Country—except Paul's flashbacks, which always take him back in time to their old house in Huntsville.
How do we know the location matters? Oh, just the little fact that it's the title of the book. And really, it's all about location in Tangerine.
We start out in Lake Windsor, the housing development where Paul and his family live. Their neighborhood is nestled in among a bunch of other ritzy developments with fancy-sounding names, like the Manors of Coventry, and the Villas at Versailles. Lake Windsor even has its own middle and high school, so, for the first part of the book, the Fisher family's lives revolve around that one area of town. Mrs. Fisher heads up their Home Owner Association Architectural Committee, Erik joins his school's football team, and even Paul makes friends in their neighborhood.
But when Paul is forced to leave Lake Windsor Middle School and go to Tangerine Middle School, he encounters a whole new way of life. The kids aren't as wealthy as the Lake Windsor kids, but Paul ends up fitting in better there than he did in his first school.
When Paul makes friends with Tino and Luis, he starts going out to their tangerine grove. There, he realizes how much of a difference location makes. As he's helping the Cruz family fight the freeze, he remarks: "In Lake Windsor Downs, the people were inside, welcoming the freeze with hot cocoa and fake logs and Christmas CDs. In Tangerine, the people were heading out to fight it with shovels and axes and burning tires" (3.3.118).
Sure, they're fighting the freeze. But the people in Tangerine are much more in tune with nature than the Lake Windsor folks. Lightning doesn't strike them, because they've left the trees on their hills alive to attract it instead. Termites don't bother them, because they built their homes on dirt, not on mounds of plowed-under, burnt-up citrus trees. They accept that the ice will kill some trees, even though they work to save as many as they can.
Location even affects the sports. Paul isn't even allowed to play on the Lake Windsor soccer team because of stuffy insurance restrictions, but he becomes a champion on the scrappy Tangerine team. But on that same team, Shandra Thomas always has to hide her face from outsiders. Why? Because her brother Antoine plays football for Lake Windsor, even though he doesn't live in that district. And when word eventually gets out, it nullifies every victory the Lake Windsor team ever earned.
So yeah, location matters. A lot. Here's what we think: everyone has to find a place where he or she belongs. There's no sense in trying to be something that you aren't by living somewhere you shouldn't. The easy example is Antoine: he belongs in Tangerine.
It gets a little trickier when you think about Mrs. Fisher. Mrs. Fisher loves their housing development, because it represents a wealthy lifestyle she's always wanted. But do the Fishers really belong? Is trying to fit in to the wrong place part of why Erik turns out so badly? Should they really be living over in Tangerine?
Successful hills are here to stay.
Everything must be this way.The Doors, "The Soft Parade"
We've got two lines from "The Soft Parade" by the Doors, a really famous band from the 60s and 70s. The rest of the lyrics to the song are super weird and abstract, but these two lines definitely fit in with the message of Tangerine—in two ways.
So. Which interpretation do you think first best? Or is it both?
Tangerine is written as if it were a middle school student's journal. It's chock-full of dialogue and sports action, so the language is not too tricky. The symbolism and themes in the novel, however, take it to the next level of difficulty, but don't sweat it: we're here to help you figure that stuff out. And the issues that Tangerine deals with are such important ones, that it really should be on everyone's reading list.
Take a wild guess how many chapters Tangerine has. How many would you say—20? 30? Nope. There are 56! 56 chapters in a 300-page book.
Even Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows only has 37 chapters, and it's 759 pages long. Got a calculator handy? This means each chapter in Tangerine is, on average, 5-6 pages long. Of course, some are longer, and believe it or not, some are shorter, but we're talking averages here.
The reason it's divided up this way is that it's supposed to be Paul's journal. Each chapter is simply titled with the date of the entry. But five or six pages is really only enough space to tackle one or two events.
Breaking the action of the story up into bite-sized pieces makes it feel very episodic. It's like watching a 30-minute TV show, where each episode moves the characters a little further along in the big, overarching storyline of the series—but at the end of the half-hour, whatever problems cropped up at the beginning of the episode have been resolved, and things are at a pretty good stopping point. That's the way it is with Paul's journal entries.
Want an example? Check out the entry for Friday, September 22.
It begins with: "We played our first soccer game today, an away game against Palmetto Middle School" (2.4.1). The next seven pages describe what happens in that game. Then, the game ends, and Victor lets Paul know that he's part of the team now, for real. Now we get Paul's reaction: "Victor returned to the back of the bus, leaving me sitting in a kind of daze. Did I hear him? Oh yeah, I heard him all right. I heard his words clearer than any words I had ever heard before. And I do believe I know what he's saying" (2.4.55).
End scene. See you next week, same time, same station.
Here's the thing—Paul is a seventh-grader. A seventh-grader! Who keeps a journal. Okay, this much we can believe. But would a normal seventh-grader really put something like this in his journal?
To the east, the sun was rising behind a long row of gray clouds. I stopped to look at them, jagged and red peaked, looming there like a distant mountain range. (3.16.3)
Well, maybe, if he was named David Foster Wallace. But don't most of us just pour out our feelings into a journal, without too much regard for pesky grammar, let alone adding fancy figures of speech and poetic descriptions? Who cares if it's well-written?
Well, apparently Paul does. On his very first night in his new house, he writes for hours after dinner: "I turned on the computer, got into my private journal, and wrote until about eleven o'clock" (1.1.55). This journal is like his best friend; it's the only place where he can tell the truth and be himself. And if the kid wants to make it all poetic, then we say, more power to him!
No worries about getting bored: Tangerine is full of action. It's got dramatic sports scenes, both soccer and football. It's got lively dialogue, and weird weather. It's got last-minute rescues from sinkholes, and frantic nights spent trying to save citrus groves. And, of course, it's got violent fights and bullying scenes.
All this takes place in a really immediate and lively writing style. We feel like we're right there in the game with Paul, or watching horrified as Erik claims another victim. Even something as simple as Paul's being awoken by a storm is full of action and excitement:
I woke up in the dark to the sound of an explosion. I groped around for my regular glasses—unable to find them in this new bedroom, upstairs in this new house. Then my glasses suddenly appeared on the nightstand, illuminated by a flash of lightning. (1.2.1)
Talk about dramatic. So what does that say about Paul, the one who's supposedly writing all this in his journal?
In Tangerine, sports say a lot about the person who plays them. So, like, if you're really into miniature golf, maybe you see yourself as the gnome who lives inside of that little castle at the last hole. Put on that red pointy hat and party! Or if you're a diehard T-ball player—at age 16—that would also tell us a little something about you, as well.
Anyway, Paul sees soccer as a team sport, where everyone has to work equally hard, and has to work together with the other teammates, in order to win. (Unlike in mini golf, where it's just you and your short pink golf club living the dream together.) All of Paul's friends are soccer players, too, including Luis.
Football, on the other hand, symbolizes for Paul everything that's wrong with sports. Being able to win fame and power without having to work at all, let alone work together, seems to him like a fake and unfair way to succeed. Here's how Paul sees it:
I've played football. […] You just stand around most of the time waiting for somebody to tell you what to do. And in the end, some guy like Erik who hasn't even worked up a sweat can come in and grab all the glory. It doesn't work that way in soccer. (1.5.12)
Even good-guy Antoine Thomas feels he has to lie about where he comes from, in order to be able to get on the "right" team, so that he has a chance to use his football skills to help him get into college. "Everyone knows how it is. If you want that big-time football dream, […] you get out of Tangerine. No big time scouts ever come here. Ever" (3.11.12)
Football players in this book use football as a means to an end—a way to get into college—rather than playing for the love of the sport, like Paul and his friends do with soccer. And Paul just doesn't think that's right.
Now we're not saying we agree with that. We've seen Friday Night Lights. But Paul does, and, right now, Paul's vision is the one that counts.
The house looked strange […] Like it was the empty, two-story tomb of some runaway zombie. (Prologue.1.1)
No, it's not an episode of The Walking Dead. It's Paul's house—or at least, Paul's house as it seems to him. Did they forget to take down the Halloween decorations or something?
Maybe, but zombies show up again as they drive off. Paul feels as if an angry zombie is following him to Florida: "I started thinking about a zombie, a pissed-off zombie. Dragging one foot behind him. […] Slowly, surely, stalking his way down Interstate 10" (1.1.56). So what's up with these zombies?
Well, a zombie is something that should be dead, but isn't. And it's totally terrifying, because it won't die, no matter what high-power military weapons you try shooting it with, or what brand of shovel you hit it over the head with. Just like Paul's past! (Except for the shooting and head-bonking parts.)
If he can't even remember what happened to his eyes, he can't even put it to rest. (You know, bash it in the head.) And it seems even scarier when he can't see it quite clearly—like a zombie off in the distance. And it follows him wherever he goes, just like a zombie. So, for Paul, zombies = his creepy past.
The people in Lake Windsor Downs have some majorly weird stuff going on in their neighborhood. If you think lightening, muck fires, disappear koi, termites, mosquitoes, and sinkholes sound a lot like something out of Exodus, you're not the only one. Wayne even remarks, "Y'all are having a regular nine plagues of Egypt over here, aren't you?" (2.14.54).
For the most part, these are natural occurrences. So, what, has Mother Nature gone nuts or something? Maybe she's watched Thor a few too many times?
Nope. All this stuff is the community's own fault. The termites are there because of the way the houses were built; the mosquitoes came because they tried to deal with the muck fire; and the muck fire is there because they cut down all the trees that attracted the lightning. It's just like that poor old lady who swallowed a fly and ends up chowing down on a horse.
So, just as the biblical plagues were sent to the Egyptians because of their own stubborn behavior (their pharaoh's refusal to change their ways), and just as the old lady had to swallow several unappetizing and probably really panicked animals, the people of Lake Windsor Downs brought these natural disasters on themselves.
We guess you could say that the plagues symbolize the way that not fixing something right away the right way can end up coming back to bite you in the rear. Just like Paul's family tried to fix Erik by ignoring his psychotic behavior and ended up just creating a murderous monster.
Paul has to wear extremely thick glasses because his vision is so poor. No, you don't understand: these things are crazy thick. As Paul says, "My glasses are so thick…" (Prologue.1.9)
Our friendly Shmoop audience yells, "How thick are they, Paul?
Oh, we just kill ourselves.
But oddly enough, with those thickeroo glasses, he is the only one able to see things others can't—or won't. His glasses symbolize his ability to see the truth better than most people. They also remind us of the event that gave him this insight into the behavior of those around him.
And we bet they slip down his nose a lot, too.
When Paul is right at his breaking point, he goes out to his neighborhood pond. A little 5-year-old boy rides his bike up to him, warning him that his parents have told him there's a gator in there.
Aww, how cute, right? This little boy is trying to protect Paul, and Paul is going to pat him on the head and send him on his way with a piece of candy, right?
Um, no. He screams at him instead: "They're lying to you. They're telling you a story just so they can keep you scared" (3.7.24). Nice, Paul. Way to scar the kid for life.
Paul ends up listing (okay, shouting) several common cautionary tales that are lies…and then some that are not. "Did you ever hear about this kid, this stupid kid who wouldn't listen to anybody, and he stared at a solar eclipse, and he went blind? Did you ever hear about him? Did you ever meet him? […] Well, you have now" (3.7.42-43).
This now severely traumatized boy represents Paul's childhood self. It's as if he's trying to go back in time and tell himself not to listen to his parents' lies.
Okay. But screaming at a 5-year-old might not be the best way to go about dealing with your past, though. Just sayin'. That's what they have therapists for.
A little while after Paul confronts his parents about his past, his mom finally takes him clothes shopping. (She's been meaning to do it for months, of course.) And she feels so guilty that she lets him buy an entirely new wardrobe.
Paul is shocked: "Mom was out of control. She let me buy everything that I even thought about wanting" (3.13.97). Man, that's awesome. If it weren't for the years of neglect and the loveless childhood, we'd want her to be our mom, too.
When he gets home, he gives every single old outfit he owns to Goodwill (jackpot! We'll see you at the Goodwill store!), and fills his closet and drawers with the new things. In a way, he's shedding his old life—all the pain, loneliness, and despair—and making room for a brighter future. And some new pants.
The book is set up like a journal, with dates instead of chapter titles. And at the end, Paul hints that Tangerine is his journal. When he reads through it to organize his thoughts so that he can write the statement about Erik for the police, he says, "I logged on and went back through all my journal entries, from Houston until today" (3.15.1).
The fact that Paul is telling us his version of events should make read carefully. He's got to be biased against his brother—wouldn't you be biased against someone who's as much of a meanie?
And that bias raises the question of how much we can trust his view of Erik. Sure, he's a jerk, but is he really someone to be feared? In his very first flashback, Paul blames Erik for attacking him. Even though Erik is obviously innocent, Paul says, "I can see everything. I can see things that Mom and Dad can't. Or won't" (Prologue.1.25).
Okay, that should definitely make us think. By the end of the story, we know for sure that Paul was right. But it always pays to be cautious. Just imagine if we were reading Erik's journal, instead. How would Paul come off?
A benefit of seeing everything through Paul's eyes—or glasses, as the case may be (for more on the symbolism there, check out Symbols)—is we get his interior life. We see his flashbacks. We hear his thoughts and feelings. We even hear him say that if Erik died, he would only be sorry because "Erik is a part of whatever it is that I need to remember. I don't want Erik to die and take his part of the story with him" (1.11.10).
Seeing events from Paul's point of view shows us his interior life in a way no other narrator could. How would the book look if Mrs. Fisher narrated it? By Joey? Or even by a third-person narrator?
We learn that there is something awful in Paul's past that he can't quite remember, but that has scarred him, physically and emotionally, for life. It seems to have something to do with Erik, his brother, but we're not sure what yet. He starts having freaky flashbacks, however, which leave him wanting to know more about what really happened to him.
Life goes on, and Paul sure seems to dislike and even fear Erik, but Erik doesn't seem to do enough to have caused that fear. Sure, he's occasionally mean to his little brother, but what big brother isn't? And yeah, his parents are kind of obsessed with him, but is that really his fault?
Oh. Now we get it. He beats up kids who are years younger than he is. He makes fun of people whose brothers just died. He drives away all of Paul's friends, and thinks it's funny. He never gets in trouble for anything. Ever. And Paul is terrified of him.
Luis is dead. Tino and Victor try to avenge his death, and this time, finally, Paul joins in the fight against his brother, if only indirectly, by helping Tino escape. But when Erik and Arthur confront Paul, he doesn't back down, and instead, threatens them. For now, though, Paul's the one who's in trouble…
…until he starts telling the truth to everyone—his parents, his friends, the police—and finally, himself. He remembers what Erik did to him as a kid. Erik ends up in trouble with the law for robbery and murder. Their parents seem to realize how wrong they've been to idolize Erik and ignore Paul. And Paul gets to start over at a new school, with a new lease on life.
Paul and his family move from Texas to Florida, and have to adjust to a new neighborhood, new schools, and new friends. We learn all about the weird weather in Tangerine County, and get a feel for how bizarre Paul's family is, too.
Whoa! A giant sinkhole swallows half of Paul's school, so he's sent to the "tougher" public school nearby, where he has to make new friends all over again. His brother Erik starts complicating things for him in that department, too, by bullying his buds, old and new.
Paul's friend's brother, Luis, is dead. And all because of Erik. It's like Romeo and Juliet, but without any of the romance—just the violent, revenge-y parts. Erik beats up Tino, so Luis confronts Erik. Erik tells Arthur to beat up Luis—which ends up killing him. So Tino beats up Erik and Arthur. And then Paul beats up Erik's coach, to help Tino, so Erik tries to beat up Paul, but changes his mind…
Confused yet? Just remember, Luis's death is the turning point, because it leads to the…
In which Erik and Arthur are finally exposed for the creeps they really are. Mrs. Fisher finds out that they've been stealing from the neighbors, and Paul tells the cops that they murdered Luis. Oh yeah, sweet justice! The truth is coming out all over the place, and everyone is finally getting what they deserve, whether good or bad.
Paul has finally come to terms with his parents, his brother, his friends, and his own past. He pours out his heart in a written statement for the police, but it's really meant for his parents, too. He starts over at yet another new school, but this time, he is a different Paul—more confident, happier, and much stronger.
Tangerine actually breaks down perfectly into three acts, since it's written in three parts. What a coincidence! Part 1 tells the story of Paul's family's move to Florida, with all the angst and problems that come along with such a big change. And just as things are settling down, a gigantic sinkhole sucks down part of Paul's school, so he is forced to change schools again.
Talk about the "point of no return"—nothing says "get out of here" quite like a sinkhole!
Part 2 takes us through Paul's re-ignited soccer career at his new school. Soccer helps him make friends, and even leads him to discover his love of citrus trees. But in spite of all his success in soccer, his parents still won't pay much attention to him, and his memory is as cloudy as ever.
In Part 3, Erik finally goes too far, and someone dies. He and Arthur are exposed for their crimes, and must face the consequences. Paul, on the other hand, can finally remember what happened to his eyes, and gets to confront his parents with all kinds of truth—we got truth busting out all over the place here. He starts over at a new school with a fresh outlook on life.