Ages 11 and up
By Edward Bloor
Though I’m not a real-life sports follower, I love a good sports novel. The world and culture of sports provide fertile ground for rich storytelling. Tangerine, an outstanding piece of fiction, is one of my favorites. Edward Bloor’s writing is full and lively, and the narrator’s voice is authentic. Readers quickly come to understand the characters but may never stop questioning their behaviors—behaviors that may be familiar, yet foreign.
The story unfolds via Paul Fisher’s journal entries. He and his family have just relocated from Texas to Tangerine, Florida. (Though there actually is a Tangerine, Florida, the city in the novel is fictitious.) Paul is about to start seventh grade at Lake Windsor Middle School. A star goalie at his last school, he’s hoping to make the soccer team here. He’s also legally blind, though he is able to see just fine with his (extremely thick) glasses. His older brother Erik tells people that Paul looked directly at a solar eclipse when he was five. Paul cannot remember the event but in the family photos prior to that summer, he’s never wearing glasses.
Erik is a star football player and soon to be senior at Lake Windsor High. He treats his brother with disdain, takes pleasure in destruction, and has a clear and present violent streak. Their father seems only to focus on Erik’s sports ability and the “Erik Fisher Football Dream.” He pays far less attention to Paul’s playing, despite the fact that Paul is quite good.
Paul lives in fear of Erik and has for as long as he can remember, but his parents seem to disregard Erik’s vicious bullying behaviors. In addition to placing a huge strain on the family, the recent move has also been triggering memories for Paul—memories of something that’s been hidden from him since the summer of the eclipse.
Tangerine is a peculiar place. Among other oddities, like a perpetually burning muck fire at the edge of the Fisher’s brand new housing development, it’s also the lightning strike capital of the U.S. Every single day at roughly the same time, a powerful storm passes over the area bringing rain and lightning.
Because of these storms, Paul’s school year begins rife with tragedies. Mike Costello, another senior and star football player at Lake Windsor High, is fatally struck by lightning. One moment he was standing with his hand on the goal post, in the next he was lying dead on the ground. Mike was the older brother of Paul’s friend, Joey, as well as Erik’s teammate. There’s an unsettling scene at the Fisher house where Erik openly mocks Joey for his reaction to his brother’s death. This is our first real glimpse into Erik’s sociopathic behaviors.
During another daily storm, a massive sinkhole opens up near Paul’s school and swallows several of the classrooms. No one is seriously hurt but it will be months before the school can be fully repaired. When students are given the option of transferring to Tangerine Middle School, Paul happily accepts. After being placed on the soccer team at Lake Windsor, Paul was informed that he was not eligible because of an IEP his mother had filed with the school. His mother agrees not to inform the new school of his visual impairment, giving Paul a second chance at playing soccer this season.
Transferring schools gives Paul a look into the other side of Tangerine, literally and figuratively. Lake Windsor High is comprised mostly of students from white, affluent families who are new to the area. The majority of Tangerine’s students are minorities, and many of them come from families who have been involved in the citrus industry for generations. While Tangerine has some star players of its own, the sports program at Lake Windsor High is much more highly regarded, so some of the more gifted athletes use fake addresses so that they may play for Lake Windsor instead.
This is a recurring theme in the sports genre, as well as a reality of life. One school has the better sports program and is more highly visible, so students from a more impoverished area use a fake address in the better district to play sports there. This is sometimes done with the school and the coach fully aware, or even facilitating, the process. The student, ideally, gets a better education and the school gets a talented athlete. But these arrangements also put everyone at great risk. Players can be expelled, maybe lose scholarships; schools can be fined and have wins revoked.
Tangerine Middle School has a much rougher reputation than Lake Windsor. Paul is nervous in the new surroundings, but handles himself well. After all, he’s had years of practice making himself invisible to bullies. He joins the soccer team as a back-up player and falls in quickly with his fellow teammates. He’s making friends and likes spending time with the Cruz family. Tino Cruz is one of the star players and his sister Theresa is the first person Paul met at his new school. Their older brother Luis operates their family’s citrus groves.
Paul invites Tino, Theresa and some other students to his home to work on a science project. When Erik and Arthur (his side-kick and partner in crime, literally) arrive they immediately begin taunting Paul’s friends. Paul tries to brush it off but Tino won’t have it; he stands up to Erik and defends himself. Then Erik strikes him—hard and in the face. Paul’s friends immediately pack up and leave. Paul is heartbroken and angry. And, for the first time in his life, he begins to realize he must stand up to Erik.
Luis Cruz pays a visit to Lake Windsor High to confront Erik about the incident at the Fisher house. Luis approaches Erik and his friends, but before a conversation can begin, Arthur (doing Erik’s bidding) strikes him in the head with a metal club. Unbeknownst to those involved, Paul witnesses the encounter. As events unfold it becomes clear that Erik’s behaviors, having gone unchecked, have become increasingly dangerous. That blow to Luis’s head turns out to be fatal; Luis dies days later from a blood clot. Paul can no longer remain silent. He must confront his parents about Erik’s behaviors and he also must share what he’s witnessed with the authorities.
Occasionally, after reading a book I’ve thought, “This is a great book, but the story/circumstances/characters are unlikely. Things like this rarely ever happen.” Then I remember that’s part of the reason that we read. Maybe readers don’t directly know anybody who has dealt with such circumstances, but such things do exist. Reading helps us understand that, and it allows us to explore possibilities and learn from things without having to directly experience them.
Bullies are everywhere; children may face them in school, adults may face them at work. Finding courage and standing up for what’s right is the best way to overcome a bully. We cannot change the actions of others, but we can control how we react to those actions.
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