The Orchardist, Amanda Coplin
HarperCollins, 426 pages
William Talmadge is a man of the land. In 1857, when he was nine years old, he came to this patch of earth in Washington State along with his mother and sister, and together, his family turned the unclaimed land into a thriving apple orchard. He knows how to encourage barren trees to bear fruit, which trees need greater protection in bad weather, and how to avoid damaging the most delicate trees at pruning time. He knows these things because he learned them at his mother’s knee, and he imagined that he and his sister would be caring for the trees for the rest of their lives. In 1860, everything changed; his mother died, and a little while later, after showing signs of restlessness, his sister disappeared. Talmadge carried on tending the orchard, alone but for a little outside help and the reassuring friendship of a neighbouring midwife, for forty years.
One day, Talmadge spots two dishevelled, frightened, and hugely pregnant teenage girls stealing apples from his land, and soon learns that there is a reward for their return. After a little investigation reveals that the girls have escaped from great danger, Talmadge decides to offer them food and shelter until the birth of the babies, and then potentially a home, if the arrangement suits. But Della’s twin babies are stillborn, and soon after Jane births a healthy baby girl, her abuser catches up with them, and to avoid further pain, Jane hangs herself from one of Talmadge’s trees.
Talmadge has waited for a family for forty years, and now, as one begins to form around him, it is already splitting apart. Jane is gone, and to cope with her death and the deaths of her unborn babies, Della loses herself chasing and taming wild horses. She prefers to leave the care of baby Angelene to Talmadge, who has been nurturing life in some form or another for decades already. But Talmadge, although delighted by Angelene, is unwilling to let Della go.
The Orchardist is an emotionally astute, unsentimental exploration of what happens to those who suffer incalculable loss. The story could be bleak, but it isn’t; all of the main characters display awe-inducing levels of strength and determination that allow them to carry on. Told in a voice both poetic and spare, The Orchardist is a masterful piece of fiction, and will certainly appeal to those who enjoy the works of Steinbeck.