Set at the turn of the last century, The Orchardist is a novel whose main character, William Talmadge, is a successful middle-aged apple and apricot grower in Oregon who has spent most of his life alone. His parents died by his teenage years and his younger sister mysteriously disappeared while herb-picking in the forest, leaving Talmadge devastated. He has few close friends other than the local midwife/healer Caroline Middey and a mute Native American named Clee, who comes through the territory a couple of times every year. Clee and his men capture, break and sell wild horses and help Talmadge with harvesting. It’s a predictable and satisfying life that becomes unsettled when a couple of teenaged girls, both pregnant, begin hanging around Talmadge’s orchards, taking his fruit and steering clear of contact with others. Talmadge takes pity and tries to help them, remembering his younger sister and her fate. As a result, Talmadge’s life undergoes some rather dramatic changes.
The structure of the novel is mostly linear, with occasional flashbacks to the main characters’ personal histories. Chapters shift among Talmadge’s story, Della’s (one of the pregnant girls) and Angelene’s (one of the babies). I would characterize it as a psychological novel, demonstrating the effects of abuse, neglect, hunger, fear and loss on children and young adults, and how the effects then play out through the course of their lives. Control is another theme: whether it’s men trying to dominate the landscape or tame horses, or individuals trying to assert control over their own lives or someone else’s.
I was impressed with Coplin’s character development. As the story progresses and the layers are peeled back, the reader catches glimpses of what motivates each, but without fully knowing or understanding them. That might sound like a criticism but I think it’s good. We never fully know other people, their thoughts and desires; we can only guess, and that’s what the characters in this book, particularly Talmadge and Angelene, do vis-a-vis each other and Della. Della is a complicated young girl/woman. She seeks danger, independence, control, and revenge but she can be naive and flirts with mental illness. The chapters devoted to her were by far the most interesting in the book in my opinion. Actually, all of the female characters seem to be rather strong, extraordinary women. Talmadge’s mother defied convention by moving alone with her children out west. Caroline Middey is a successful single woman, respected in her community. Still, opportunities and rights for women were limited and could lead to extreme actions when a woman felt powerless. This is demonstrated several times in the novel.
Coplin’s writing, particularly descriptions of landscapes (which can be tedious and distracting in some novels), is lovely and evocative. A lot of this novel is pretty heavy and sort of depressing. The characters all contemplate the meaning of life and death at some point, but there’s still an edge of hope, such as in this passage:
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, the birds had started their racket in the trees…. 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.
This is one of the better novels I’ve read this year and would be a great pick for a discussion group.