Paul Griffin

The Orange Houses

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The Orange Houses Summary

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The Orange Houses is a 2009 young adult novel by American author Paul Griffin. Set in New York City’s West Bronx, roughly in the present day, it follows teenager Tamika (“Mik”) Sykes who comes of age with the added burden of hearing impairment. Sykes gets through the stigma attached to her situation with the support of a diverse network of new friends. The novel progresses in a day-by-day countdown to the date of a mob’s assault on her friend, Jimmi. Griffin’s characters are formed from his experiences teaching at-risk kids before becoming a professional author. The novel’s title refers to a community housing project known for its signature orange houses that was raised in the Bronx in the 1970s. In 2009, the ALA nominated the novel as one of the Top Best Books for Young Adults.

The novel begins with a snapshot of the day Jimmi is assaulted. He, Mik, and Fatima are in a cave, on the run from an angry mob that wants to hurt Jimmi. The story then shifts a month backward, introducing Mik, the central protagonist. Mik lives in a low-income Bronx housing project with her mother. Because she is hearing-impaired and bears it visibly due to her hearing aids, she is constantly bombarded with questions about what it is like to be hard of hearing, and exactly “how deaf” she is. The hearing aids are unwieldy and lead to occasional infections; at the same time, they are a blessing: she can turn them down whenever she needs peace and quiet. After school each day, Mik works at a convenience store in her neighborhood. Her manager notices that her hearing aids bother her, and kindly offers to pay for better ones. Finding the offer too generous, Mik declines.

Next, the story introduces Fatima, a refugee from Africa who makes a perilous journey to New York City despite being unable to get asylum. Set on living the American Dream, Fatima first finds work delivering newspapers and a small apartment near Mik. She also volunteers at the local VA hospital in children’s health education. At the hospital, Fatima meets Jimmi, an eighteen-year-old veteran who is struggling with posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, and drug dependence, mostly related to his experiences overseas. Mik meets Fatima while driving along her paper route, and they quickly become friends. Mik opens up about her anxieties and frustrations with her hearing impairment. Fatima urges Mik to see the doctor about her hearing aids. Mik learns that the money her manager offered is enough to buy new ones that work better, are less noticeable, and are less likely to cause infections. However, for the time being, Mik chooses to keep her aids because she can use them to block out the world around her.

Meanwhile, New York City’s immigration laws are becoming more stringent. Fatima fears that her illegal status will be discovered and lead to her deportation. Mik and her mother bring her to an immigration attorney. The man agrees to help Fatima secure an asylum visa. The legal fees amount to virtually all of Mik’s family’s savings, but they are glad that Fatima will be safe. One day, a bully named Shanelle assaults Mik on the street with a box cutter. Her reason for targeting Mik is that Shanelle’s crush is allegedly interested in Mik instead. Though Mik did nothing wrong and didn’t mean to hurt Shanelle, she and her posse are relentless. Thankfully, Jimmi passes by, pulling Mik to safety. After they get away, the witnesses assume that Jimmi, a veteran addicted to drugs, has abducted Mik, whom they assume is vulnerable due to her hearing impairment.

Jimmi and Mik find Fatima, and they decide to hide out together. The mob catches up with them and assaults Jimmi. While his friends watch, terrified, they hang Jimmi upside-down and start to beat him. Fatima musters the courage to stand in their way. Though the mob doesn’t back down, the police arrive shortly after and break up the scene. They bring Mik and Fatima to the station to question them about the events leading up to the hanging. Jimmi is sent to a hospital, where he is given drugs that dull the pain but also make him more verbose. When he is questioned, he accidentally lets out that Fatima is an illegal immigrant. As a result, Fatima is arrested and sent to a detention center.

Mik and her mother find Fatima at the detention center. Despite all of the injustices stacked against her, she is not bitter or angry; she explains that she will always be glad that she tried to come to America. Mik is distraught about her friend’s situation but hopes that she will one day get asylum. She purchases her new hearing aids and can hear better than ever. Though they aren’t perfect, she embraces the improvement. The Orange Houses suggests that though not all violence and injustice can be prevented in the world, people can still strive to make it a better place.