The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin
2012 HarperCollins Audio
Reader: Mark Bramhall
Finished on 1/23/13
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)
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 teenage 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 Talmadge is 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 Talmadge’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.
Writing with breathtaking precision and empathy, Amanda Coplin has crafted an astonishing debut novel about a decent man who disrupts the lonely harmony of an ordered life when he opens his heart. Transcribing America as it once was before railways and roads connected its corners, she weaves a tapestry of solitary souls who come together in the wake of unspeakable cruelty and misfortune, bound by their search to discover the place where they belong. At once intimate and epic, evocative and atmospheric, filled with haunting characters both vivid and true to life, and told in a distinctive narrative voice, The Orchardist marks the beginning of a stellar literary career.
It’s been well over a month since I finished listening to this book and I am still haunted by the characters. Coplin’s debut novel, with its spare prose and strong sense of place, is an evocative work in the tradition of Kent Haruf (Plainsong and Eventide) and Cormac McCarthy (All the Pretty Horses and The Road). If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you know about my love for anything written about or set in the Pacific Northwest. As I read the opening line of the publisher’s blurb (in the ARC, which I happen to have in addition to the audio version), I felt a strong sense of anticipation for a beautifully crafted piece of literature set in one of my favorite places in this country. I am happy to report that I was not disappointed. However, I believe this tender story would be more effective in print, rather than audio. I don’t have any complaints about the reader (who I thought did a decent job), but as I flipped through the ARC, I became more aware of the distinctive narratives between Talmadge, Della and Angelene (and how they are physically separated within the printed page), and thus was more able to appreciate the beauty of Coplin’s writing, which can be difficult to do while driving around town or listening as I work. Coplin is a talented writer and storyteller and I look forward to her next endeavor. Perhaps a sequel, as I’m not quite ready to say goodbye to Angelene.
Here are just a couple of my favorite passages:
Around her the garden was in verdant bloom; the smell of the air was almost sickening with odor, and although it was late in the day the last bees were industrious in the crocus bulbs, the birds had started their racket in the trees. There was a shadow over most of the grass, and for a moment Caroline Middey did not remember what month it was, or her age; and then she remembered, and knew that she was nearer to death than any of her young enterprises—and why should this surprise her? But the knowledge seemed new—she was going to die, like all the others, and the knowledge was absorbed by the garden, which simultaneously cradled her and drew her out of herself, into the perfume, into the noise.
He felt an ambiguous desire rise in him when she left the cabin, and he knew she was out there among the trees, working in her slow way that he hesitated to remedy because the slowness denoted something deeper within her that he did not want to penetrate or to steal. The slowness had to do with the deliberation that would always be with her, that gravid, searching countenance. She would never say that she loved, because they did not use that type of language; they did not say “love,” for instance, or “beautiful,” or any descriptive language at all. At times, commenting upon the sky at dusk, he would call it “pretty,” and she would nod her head, once, in agreement. When she entered a room that he occupied, or he entered an orchard row in which she worked, they did not greet each other with words but touched an appendage of the other with their eyes, and could tell by the other’s expression or posture if they were pleased or discomfited or bothered, or if they were sated by the day’s weather or by the other’s presence. They intuited these things about each other as one decides about one’s own body: thoughtlessly, organically.
Recently in his sickness she took his hand in hers when she sat on the edge of the bed, and leaned and kissed his eyebrows, separately, like unsentimentally massaging a leg that is cramping.
He woke to the empty cabin, to the wall spangled with afternoon light. Behind everything was the sound of the creek—the creek that came from the mountain and flowed into the river north of Wenatchee—and above the sound of the creek was the sound of the ash trees shaking in the wind. The trees bordered the pasture, which was filled with long grass, uncut and uneaten by any horses. The sound of water and the sound of the wind in the trees, which were fed by the creek and so were partial to the creek, occupied Talmadge as he slept and woke. It was a sound highly expressive, highly communicable. He listened and thought, Yes, Yes.
Talmadge, said Angelene. It had taken all evening to come up with what she was going to say. She sat on the edge of the bed. She said: Tonight the sky is the color of new plums. …
Final Thoughts: Amanda Coplin has written a remarkable novel, worthy of re-reading and one to share with friends or discuss with your book club. I’m also now intrigued with Wenatchee, Washington... Adding it to our retirement road trip list.
Click here to read a Seattle Times interview with the author.
Click here to listen to an interview with Coplin on OPB (Oregon Public Broadcast).