At the turn of the twentieth century, in a rural stretch of the Pacific Northwest in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, a solitary orchardist named Talmadge carefully tends the grove of fruit trees he has cultivated for nearly half a century. A gentle, solitary man, he finds solace and purpose in the sweetness of the apples, apricots, and plums he grows, and in the quiet, beating heart of the land-the valley of yellow grass bordering a deep canyon that has been his home since he was nine years old. Everything he is and has known is tied to this patch of earth. It is where his widowed mother is buried, taken by illness when he was just thirteen, and where his only companion, his beloved teenaged sister Elsbeth, mysteriously disappeared. It is where the horse wranglers-native men, mostly Nez Perce-pass through each spring with their wild herds, setting up camp in the flowering meadows between the trees.
One day, while in town to sell his fruit at the market, two girls, barefoot and dirty, steal some apples. Later, they appear on his homestead, cautious yet curious about the man who gave them no chase. Feral, scared, and very pregnant, Jane and her sister Della take up on Talmadage’s land and indulge in his deep reservoir of compassion. Yet just as the girls begin to trust him, brutal men with guns arrive in the orchard, and the shattering tragedy that follows sets Talmadge on an irrevocable course not only to save and protect them, putting himself between the girls and the world, but to reconcile the ghosts of his own troubled past.
The Orchardist is a story about a family of the heart. William Talmadge, the orchardist, has endured the loss of his blood relations one by one. When he encounters two young pregnant women on the run, he is drawn to them and makes an effort to establish a familial, if not friendly, relationship. At the epicentre of their lives is the orchard, a point from which some run and others cling to.
I was prepared to like The Orchardist because it sounded like a dramatic, emotionally compelling book. Ultimately it was just so-so for me. Nearly everything in the cover copy happens in part one of the book, which felt misleading. I realized that everything I had been set up to anticipate had already happened by the time part one ended, and wondered why the remaining 400 pages were left to be a mystery. What was it about the rest of the book that made it inappropriate to summarize?
I don’t even know how to describe part two onward. It’s a book about people, as vague as that sounds — their failings, desires, and relationships. Coplin’s writing is intimate, but at the same time she writes above the story. It’s rather like being inside a Faulkner novel, except the American south is exchanged for the American northwest. There were long stretches where I had no idea where the book was going. It seemed like the narrator was just killing time, allowing the characters to grow older so that they could engage in a new, maturer level of action.
Much of the book is written about Della’s perspective. The younger of the two girls who came to rely in Talmadge in part one, Della struggles to grow into a functional member of society after the traumatic experiences of her youth. It wasn’t entirely clear to me whether Della is suffering from mental illness because of what happened to her, or if she was born with some degree of intellectual disability. Regardless of the reasons why, Della’s sections of the novel are driven by emotion and instinct. She is a compelling character, even though she isn’t easily understood.
There are no quotation marks to denote dialogue in The Orchardist, which may frustrate some. It requires to the reader to pay close attention to when a character is speaking, when their sentences end, and when they are simply thinking. Many times I had to go back a paragraph and reread the dialogue in order to follow a basic conversation. Some kind of marker, even if it wasn’t quotation marks, would have saved me a lot of time.
The Orchardist is a good book. It’s artful, moving, and subtle. Though it wasn’t a great book, in my opinion, it’s definitely a worthwhile read for anyone who appreciates getting into the guts of a story, of its characters, and breathing in the atmosphere of their emotional lives.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher via TLC Book Tours: The Sky’s the Limit, in exchange for an honest review.