The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin
Author: Amanda Coplin
Genre: Fiction (Historical / early 20th Century / Pacific Northwest / Oregon / Horticulture / Teenage Pregnancy)
Publisher/Publication Date: Harper Perennial (3/5/2013)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Rating: Liked, possibly loved. This one will grow on me, I suspect, as time goes on.
Did I finish?: Oh yes.
One-sentence summary: Set in early 20th century Oregon, a orchardist helps two pregnant girls on the run and the experience has explosive results for all.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction
Do I like the cover?: I'm of two minds: a little bit I like it for the colors, and the bucolic setting; but up close, the image is sort of rendered like one those paint programs that makes photos look like canvases. It's odd.
I'm reminded of...: Alice Hoffman, Doris Lessing
First line: His face was as pitted as the moon.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Ohemgee, borrow or buy, especially if you like narratives set in the American West.
Why did I get this book?: I regretted missing out on reading it when it came out in hardcover -- the swoons by bloggers I trust swayed me.
Review: Life in the historical western US evokes complicated feelings in me. I like it for sentimental reasons from playing Oregon Trail in elementary school, and for some time, my family was stationed out in South Dakota and Utah, where we immersed ourselves in prairie stories. (The landscapes out west are amazing. The wind really could make a person mad. I don't miss living out there but I would love to visit again.) But there's a dark current of domination in narratives about life out west -- dominating nature, dominating people -- even when the characters aren't lawmen and outlaws, or Forty-niners and Native Americans.
In this beautiful, quiet, grim, graceful first novel, set in the early 1900s, we see that domination play out in the orchardist's pruning and grafting of his trees; in the capturing and taming of wild horses by the wranglers; in the savage battle to survive life as a woman.
The orchardist of the title is Talmadge. He lives alone on his massive spread of land -- neat rows of apple and apricot trees, plus a wild expanse of forest he preserves because he can -- in the house his mother built when he was a child. He's solitary, but lives with ghosts: his sister Elsbeth, who disappeared one day when he was a young man, the legacy of his isolation-seeking mother. His guests are few, itinerant horse wranglers including his mute friend Clee, and the town's herbalist and midwife, a composed older woman named Caroline Middey (who remains that, Caroline Middey, throughout the whole book). He visits town weekly to sell his fruit and get his supplies.
His world is changed by the arrival of two wild, barefooted, dirty, pregnant teenagers, Della and Jane. Within days of spotting them skulking around his property, Talmadge sees a notice offering a reward for their return. Chilled by the cash reward offered, Talmadge treks to the Oklahoma mining camp where the girls are 'from', wanting to see why they might have fled. My guess aligned pretty much with what Talmadge found, and he returns to his orchard resolute, however unconscious, to care for the girls and their coming infants.
The story doesn't stop there; in fact, all that is the start, the foundation, of the taut, gripping, heartbreaking, exultant story of survival, family, vengeance, and acceptance.
Coplin's writing style reinforces the hushed feel; I held my breath while reading both out of anticipation and a desire to keep from being too loud lest the characters noticed me. There's dialogue but Coplin writes without quotations, which for me perpetuated the quiet. The novel is broken up into sections, and those sections marked not by chapters, but by pauses and breaks, noted only with a small, lovely graphic flourish. Again, there's hush, and restraint, and quiet; passage of time.
However, this isn't a slow novel, despite the restraint that vibrates from the pages; that domination I mentioned earlier also radiates out, as well as rocketing action, enormous emotions kept tight and close. I felt wildly jumpy while reading, bucking against that restraint Coplin evokes.
I'm horrified to admit I hated Della and Jane for their slovenly disinterest and calculated coldness. Victims of violence, degradation, and ignorance, Talmadge was able to see past their wild savagery and animal instincts and recognize the human in them. His patience and concern for them seemed boundless, which made me aware of my own impatience toward them. In fact, Talmadge's careful care of them echoes his nurturing of his trees: splintering the injured, grafting to make stronger, keeping an eye on the elements to ensure disease and the weather don't rot the entire orchard.
Another wildly unique historical novel, Coplin's book has a literary feel, reminiscent of the strong-and-silent genre of historical Westerns, and shares the grim reality of parts of the US that harken to the 1800s rather than the 1900s. Coplin is an author to watch.
*** *** ***
I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Orchardist to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 3/22. For another entry, check out my interview with the author.