Amanda Coplin grew up in the apple-growing Wenatchee Valley, on the sunny side of Washington state's Cascade range, surrounded by her grandfather's orchards. Her glorious first novel, inspired by family history, takes you back to the days when you could buy what are now considered heirloom apples — Arkansas Blacks and Rhode Island Greenings — from the man who grew them, from bushel baskets lugged into town by mule-drawn wagon. Seattle and Tacoma were mere villages, and train travel was the new-tech way to go.
When we first meet Talmadge, Coplin's orchardist, he has spent 40 years growing apples, apricots and plums in an isolated high valley where he settled as a child with his mother and younger sister, after his father died in a silver mine collapse. This was a place, Coplin writes, where this pioneer mother could show her children that "you belong to the earth, and the earth is hard."
Talmadge's mother tends to the first orchard — Gravensteins — and befriends a neighboring band of Nez Perce men who trade in wild horses. She dies while Talmadge and his sister Elsbeth are still young — and not long after, Elsbeth disappears while collecting herbs in the forest. Was she abducted? Did she run away? Talmadge never finds out. After a year of grief, in which he is nursed by Caroline Middey, the local herbalist (a solid pioneer woman who embodies the "earth is hard" wisdom), he is left to a solitary life in the orchard.
Talmadge doesn't venture far in 40 years, but eventually trouble comes to him. Two skittish young girls, both pregnant, descend upon his orchard, avid as feral cats, scavenging for food. He leaves plates of food — fried trout, or corncakes and fried apples — on the porch of his cabin, and asks around in town. Jane and her younger sister Della, orphans in their early teens, have escaped from a brothel run by a sadistic opium addict named Michaelson. And Michaelson wants them back.
Coplin establishes a clear parallel between these needy, damaged girls and Talmadge's long-lost sister Elsbeth, showing a solitary man opening up to the renewed possibility of family. When the two girls go into labor on the same day and Caroline Middey asks him to deliver Jane's child while she tends to Della, whose twins are stillborn, Talmadge confronts the elemental mystery of birth: "He dwelt upon the image of the body — tiny, hot, bloody — in his hands. What was it? Where did it come from?" When he hears the cries of Jane's daughter, he is shocked to discover he is happy. But soon, Michaelson and his men enter the orchard, and Jane and Della execute a desperate plan.
Coplin is masterful at tracing the inner life of the troubled Della, and the release she finds in taming wild horses. Breaking a horse, she learns, takes a long time: "By the time Clee was finished the horse was shivering, brimming with wildness just contained." Della leaves the orchard with Clee, the Nez Perce leader, and his men. Talmadge has no idea where she ends up.
But we know. Coplin tells the story of Della's descent from wrangling and rodeos into a life of hardship and violence in tandem with the next phase in the orchard, as Talmadge rears Jane's daughter, Angelene, with the same loving care he gives his fruit trees. The last third of the book takes a series of hairpin turns, some easier to follow than others, as news that Della has surfaced after nearly a decade on the road lures Talmadge into danger.
The Orchardist is a stunning accomplishment, hypnotic in its storytelling power, by turns lyrical and gritty, and filled with marvels. Coplin displays a dazzling sense of craftsmanship, and a talent for creating characters vivid and true. She also gives us insightful glimpses of the American West in the throes of a massive shift away from the agricultural style of life. Here is Talmadge, reflecting on how the rapidity with which he can travel 40-some miles by train bothers his sensibility: "He had moved slowly all of his life. He was used to seeing things drawn out of themselves by temperature and light, not by harsh action. But this was something different. This was how people lived, now."
By the end of The Orchardist it is clear that the changes of the 20th century have overtaken Talmadge, and his Eden is eroding. But the image of the orchard, rendered in language of near biblical intensity, remains.