My rating: 5 of 5 stars
It is a rare read that cuts through the surface noise of daily life and becomes the one sound you can hear clearly, like a church bell on a still winter morning. It commands your full attention and you willingly shut out the world and surrender to the power of its images, characters and the force of its story. Amanda Coplin’s debut novel, The Orchardist, is one such book.
Set in the early years of the 20th century in the golden valleys and granite hills of Chelan county in north-central Washington state, The Orchardist is a fierce and poetic story of the Northwest frontier.
William Talmadge, the orchardist, has led a secluded, solitary life since he was a young man. Orphaned in early adolescence, he and his younger sister Elsbeth, worked on their own to maintain acres of apple and apricot orchards in the Wenatchee Valley. When she turns sixteen, Elsbeth vanishes. Whether she is taken or disappears of her own volition is a question that will haunt Talmadge as the century turns and he enters the later years of his life.
Talmadge provides refuge to two young women who appear in his orchard one day, filthy, starving and pregnant. By inviting them into his home, he opens the door to great tragedy and profound love. Talmadge is a nurturer – it is an undeniable facet of his character that he seeks to repair what has been damaged by neglect or abuse, whether it is sapling or a human heart.
But, as Talmadge learns, even the most tender care, the strongest scion of love and compassion, cannot heal all wounds.
Coplin’s prose is exhilarating. She composes with quiet confidence, her narrative rich in period detail. And although she describes of ugly circumstances– the suffering of women trapped in desperate conditions, a time when deprivation and disease swept through communities with shocking regularity – she writes with such empathy and beauty that the heart is reminded to hope. And the heart is rewarded. And it is shattered.
Coplin’s writing is uniquely and brilliantly her own, but a few favorite authors came to my mind while reading The Orchardist: Toni Morrison, for her evocative and dark period pieces and haunted women; Ivan Doig for the warmth of his characters and his passion for the West; Kent Haruf for his restraint and gentleness; Tim Winton for his truth-telling about the complicated nature of family.
I always hold my breath when encountering a familiar setting or terrain in a book: will the author have a feel for the place, its light and colors, its scents and temperatures? Will she follow the undulations of its land and the shapes in its cities? Coplin, a native of the Wenatchee Valley, not only conveys the beauty of the sage-steppe of the Cascade mountain foothills, the gold of its valleys, the shimmering glory of its aspen forests and glacial lakes, she erases the damage wrought by the past one hundred years of development. She takes you to a time when the air and water were so pure, the land so unscathed, that you cry in homesickness for a place you never really knew. The names from my home, Wenatchee, Cashmere, Ellensburg, Methow, Walla Walla, Chelan, Okanogan, Stehekin, Dungeness, are renewed and flow through this novel like poetry.
This is one of those novels I want to carry around to show everyone, to bring up in every conversation even tangentially related to reading or the Northwest. I cried when I turned its final page. I wept for the characters, for the past, for the gift of reading sentences so beautifully and thoughtfully constructed. I reckon this will be my top read of 2012. Brava, Amanda. Thank you.
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