A review of The Lemon Orchard by Luanne Rice

Reviewed by Ruth Latta

The Lemon Orchard
by Luanne Rice
2013, hc $27.95US, ISBN 978-0-670-02527-5

There is an old saying: “A bird and a fish may fall in love, but where will they live?” This is the central question in The Lemon Orchard.  In this reader-friendly, accessible novel, two parents from different cultures and social classes bond because each has lost a child. Yet The Lemon Orchard is more than a romance between a modern-day star-crossed Lady Chatterley and a Mellors, however, for it involves a not issue in the United States – illegal immigration.

The “present action” of the story begins when Julia Riley Hughes of Connecticut, a widow and bereaved mother with a Ph.D in anthropology, comes to house-sit a Malibu estate owned by her professor uncle and his actress wife. John and Graciela Riley are in Connemara, Ireland, where he is researching the life of an ancestor, John Patrick Riley.

John Patrick Riley (1817-1850) is the only non-fictional character in The Lemon Orchard. Wikipedia informs us that he was one of several hundred immigrant Catholic Irishmen who defected from the U.S. Army and formed the St. Patrick’s Battalion to fight for Mexico in the 1846-8 Mexican War. This war followed U.S. annexation of Texas in 1845 and divided public opinion in the United States. The victorious Americans forced Mexico to accept the loss of Texas, accept the Rio Grande as the U.S.-Mexican border, and cede Alta California and New Mexico to the U.S.A. for $15 million.

On her uncle’s estate, Julia meets Roberto Roderiguez, a thirty-five year old Mexican immigrant who is part of the work crew on the Malibu property, which includes a lemon orchard. Making polite conversation when their paths cross, she asks if he has children. His hesitation before saying “yes” tells her that he is living with a loss similar to hers.

As she gets to know Roberto better, Julia learns that his six year old daughter Rosa disappeared during their illegal crossing from Mexico into the U.S. in 2007. He blames himself for leaving her for a moment in the lee of a boulder during the confusion of finding their transportation while U.S. border authorities were bearing down on them. In earlier days, migrants were given the derogatory label “wetbacks”, but they eventually abandoned river crossings, where so many were captured, and chose risky overland routes instead. Roberto tells Julia the hazards of illegal entry: the exploitative guides, known as “coyotes”; the dangerous animals; the long desert hike in extreme temperatures; and, finally, the desperate attempt to evade U.S. border authorities. Hundreds lose their lives each year. “It’s a humanitarian crisis,” says the wife of an American border officer in the novel. “Getting a green card”; that is, entering legally, is nearly impossible, Roberto tells Julia.

Without telling Roberto, Julia contacts the Reunion Project in LaJolla, CA, a project in which archaeologists and forensic specialists work with medical examiners in a variety of jurisdictions to try to find out the fate of missing migrants. Sadly, although their work provides closure for families, they seldom find anything but remains.

Julia also goes to Yuma, Arizona, to meet with retired border patrolman Jack Leary, who arrested the group that Roberto and Rosa were with, back in 2007. Leary noticed a child’s footprints, and, seeing no child in the group, got a team of expert trackers, the “Shadow Wolves”, to investigate. They found that Rosa had been picked up by another group, and located her green running shoes a half a mile apart, but could not determine what had happened to her after that. After Julia leaves, Leary continues his inquiries.

Meanwhile, back in Malibu, Julia reports on her search to Roberto and their romance deepens. Rice includes several elements in Julia’s back story which imade her open to loving outside her ethnic group. First, Uncle John and Aunt Graciela have a marriage of mixed ethnicities. Also, we learn that the young Julia felt herself under the magical protection of her Irish ancestor, John Patrick Riley, who sided with the Mexicans. As well, her Uncle John has often compared the 19th century Irish immigrants  with the 20th and 21st century Mexican immigrants, saying that both wanted to escape poverty and have a chance in life.

Rice’s decision to present the story from multiple viewpoints (though mostly from Julia’s and Roberto’s) allows her to show the migrants’ desert journey directly rather than give it second-hand through Julia. Rice includes a racist/classist incident which shows what Julia and Roberto are up against, socially, but this incident would be more relevant and pack more of a punch if the offender had been American rather than British.

I liked Rice’s low-key feminist attitude about love and marriage, particularly the idea that Julia’s marriage had deteriorated because Julia had “tried to be too good! Julia, who had wanted to be an anthropologist since elementary school, put her scholarly ambitions on hold while Peter completed law school, which he’d chosen “by default”, with no strong leanings toward any field. “Somehow,” writes Rice, in Julia’s voice, “they’d gotten the idea that his work was important and hers was inconsequential.” By the time Julia actually entered graduate school, he was a successful lawyer who found her scholarly pursuits “unnecessary and inconvenient,” and wanted her full attention on their social life. Julia worries that their tensions troubled their daughter, Jenny, and contributed to her death, but Rice makes it clear, through bits of detail, that Peter was the one most at fault.

In a traditional romance, the heroine is swept off her feet by a hero more powerful than she is, but in Rice’s novel, the roles are reversed, with Julia having most of the power. Roberto is astonished and delighted that his feelings for Julia are reciprocated, but he is too proud to marry her for a green card. “I don’t want you to marry me to help me, only to love me,” he says. They vow “siempre” (“always”; “forever”) to each other, but the ending is open and bitter-sweet. More than just a romance, The Lemon Orchard enlightens while it entertains.

Ruth Latta’s novel, The Songcatcher and Me, (Ottawa, Baico, 2013, $20, ISBN 978-1-927481-36-3) is available from baico@bellnet.ca