I read about this novel… somewhere… some time ago, and had it loaded on my iPod along with many others. And then Christine Byl (author of Dirt Work) praised it mightily on her facebook page, and it moved to the top of my list.
I will by sharing the plot outline as I vaguely understood it when I started this book: an old man manages an orchard in the hills, alone, as he has for many years, when a pregnant girl appears at the edge of a field and seems to need his help. He helps her.
That’s all I knew going in, and I’m a little tempted to leave it at that for you, too. I’ll tell you a little more, but I do want to leave a lot for you to discover on your own reading.
The old man, Talmadge, has indeed managed his expansive orchard property in Washington state for some 40 years, ever since he was 17 and his 16-year-old sister disappeared into the woods one day without warning. He has one friend from town, Caroline Middey, and a few friends among a group of Indian horse wranglers who seasonally stop by to help him pick his fruit; but he is mostly alone. And then the girls show up – two of them – and begin by stealing some apples from him on market day. He sets them out plates of food at his cabin and wanders off to let them eat; when he returns, they have cleaned the cabin of every scrap of food. They are both visibly pregnant, and look about 13 years old.
Talmadge does his best to care for these girls, who are consistently portrayed, early in the novel, with the imagery of wild animals. They stare, they watch him carefully and warily, they flinch away; they don’t talk. Their loyalty is towards each other; they have no more ability to trust Talmadge than a stray dog that’s been beaten. They are strongly identified with the wild. And somehow, in my early understanding of this book, I had thought that the story began and ended with the pregnant girl (or as it turned out, girls), but I was wrong. This novel spans a number of years – about 25 of them. Early on, it appears that the action is in essence Talmadge’s recovery of a family, lost when his mother died and his sister disappeared and now replaced by these young women and their children. But no, it’s not that simple. That does seem to be the momentum, the effort of at least some of the characters in question, but the world that Coplin portrays is too much the real world for anything to come out that easily, or for anyone’s dreams to be fulfilled so fully.
I enjoyed very much the simple depiction of central Washington state in the early 1900′s. Coplin, like her characters, doesn’t use flowery speech, but communicates nonetheless the gnarled beauty of a landscape of hills, canyons, and fruit trees, and the careful loving care Talmadge puts into the details of his orchard: it’s an art, really. Her writing evokes the feeling that this is another time, only a little related to our world today. It’s a beautifully written story, and beautifully read as well by Mark Bramhall.
The pace of this story is careful and measured. Talmadge is a contemplative man; seeing as how he’s past middle age and employed at growing trees, it should not surprise us that he takes his time in all things, which Coplin reflects in the rhythms of her writing. Bramhall follows suit in his reading, which is lovely and sedate. In the first, say, third of the book, the reader feels some tension about the two pregnant girls and their immediate fate: there are presumably labors and deliveries to come, at a schedule that cannot be denied, which gives the pace a little push. But in the middle third things slow considerably, and if one is going to get impatient with this book, this is when it will happen; I got a little impatient myself at the slower middle bit. Come to think of it, the story is sectioned off rather like a person’s life, which it resembles in several ways. In its youth, the plot leans forward into the future; in middle age it slows somewhat; and it regains a sense of urgency in its old age, when it feels its death coming – or the death of its characters. So, on pacing I have some mild criticisms, which can be alleviated by being a little patient because you enjoy the story so much, or by being a more patient reader than I am.
An overarching theme is clearly family, or relationship. The characters in this novel almost without exception lack family in the traditional sense of blood relatives; they make their own families outside those bonds – or fail to, and also relate strongly to the earth. There is a fine passage near the end about a young woman losing track of her physical self while doing physical work, feeling closer to the dirt than to her own body. In fact, women doing physical work is a thread throughout, which I also appreciated. (And now that I think of it, is another clear connection to Dirt Work.)
Overall, The Orchardist is a moving story, beautifully written, sad and exquisite and with some fine statements on human nature, and an underlying statement on our diminishing relationship with the land. Fine narration by Bramhall. Caveat for pacing, but that’s a matter of preference.