Ambition takes two different forms in Tangerine. Both Erik and Paul are ambitious, but their dreams take very different forms. The Erik Fisher Football Dream, as Paul calls it, has completely taken over Erik and his father. Everything they do is designed to promote Erik’s football career. His father wants Erik to be drafted by a big Florida school like the University of Florida or University of Miami, and he seems obsessed by the idea. It is in fact not an unreasonable ambition, since Erik is indeed a talented player, but he is eventually undermined by the glaring flaws in his character. Paul’s ambitions are necessarily more limited, since he is visually impaired, but he loves to play goalie in soccer, and he pursues this ambition with great tenacity and perseverance. Unlike Erik, he has the character traits that enable him to overcome the odds and succeed, and he gets to be part of the Tangerine Middle School soccer team that wins the championship.
Paul is in the unfortunate position of being a younger brother who is less well favored in the family and who is bullied and despised by his older brother. Because of his visual handicap and the thick-lens glasses he must wear, Paul is often teased by the other kids at school, who call him Mars or Eclipse Boy (the latter an allusion to the belief, which later turns out to be wrong, that Paul damaged his eyes by staring too long at the sun during an eclipse). Faced with these and other difficulties (such as when he is told he is ineligible to play soccer for Lake Windsor), it is not surprising that sometimes Paul gets discouraged. At one point he knows he has a choice: I could stop trying to be what everyone else is and accept being a freak” (p. 76). But he has too much determination to simply passively accept his outsider status. In spite of his handicap, he shows he has physical courage, when
he helps rescue kids from the sinkhole, and he is justly proud of what he did: “ I faced down danger today, even death” (p. 85), although he does not regard himself as a hero. Paul also has the courage to persevere in his goal of playing soccer on the school team. Not only this, and after some wavering and self-examination, he finds the courage to stand up to his thug-like older brother. Early in the novel, he is afraid of Erik. But the situation with Erik comes to a head after Erik hits Tino, Paul’s friend, while Tino and his science project group meet at Paul’s house. After the violent incident, Paul wonders to himself what he might have done to prevent it or how he might have acted immediately after: “What could I have done? What should I have done?” (p. 207). But not long after this, following the mayhem at the senior awards night, he is able to fully stand up to the bully in his own home: “Come on, Erik, let’s see if you can do any better with me than you did with Tino” (p. 261), he says. Erik backs down. Paul has shown he has physical as well as moral courage.
Regeneration of Nature
Tangerine County was originally known as the Tangerine Capital of the World, but the industry has gone into rapid decline. Developers have bought up land, the trees have been cut down, and new housing developments are springing up. But this development has brought with it an array of environmental problems. The peat from the trees has created layers of lignite, a kind of coal, that is ignited by lightning. This produces muck fires. Efforts to extinguish the muck fires have led to the creation of swamps. The swamps in turn breed mosquitoes that carry a disease that can kill children if they are bitten. The houses in Lake Windsor Downs have to be fumigated with powerful insecticides to get rid of the mosquitoes. As a counterbalance to this environmental chaos are the efforts of Luis Cruz to cultivate a new kind of tangerine that will restore to the county much of its traditional character. It is this note of regeneration on which the novel ends. As Paul is being driven to his new school, they pass through the citrus groves, and “the car immediately filled up with that scent, the scent of a golden dawn” (p. 303). It is a complete contrast to the smoke and fires from burning trees that they saw when they first arrived in the county.
Truth and Lies
Paul is a seeker of the truth. He likes to see things the way they really are, which is often quite different from how people perceive them or want them to be. He is also determined to recover the memory of what happened to him when he was five years old and his eyes were damaged. He eventually discovers that his parent lied to him about what happened. His brother was responsible for damaging his eyes by having his buddy Vincent Castor spray paint into them. In contrast to Paul’s truth-seeking nature, Erik tries to pull the wool over people’s eyes, pretending to be an upstanding young man when in fact he is a heartless thug and a thief. In this novel, truth eventually triumphs over lies.