At the turn of the 20th century in a rural stretch of the Pacific Northwest, a gentle solitary orchardist, Talmadge, tends to apples and apricots. Then two feral, pregnant girls and armed gunmen set Talmadge on an irrevocable course not only to save and protect but to reconcile the ghosts of his own troubled past.
Her character of Talmadge is one I can't get out of my head. Talmadge lives on his family's orchard in the western United States at the turn of the 20th century, all alone since his teenage sister walked into the woods one day and never came back. Did she run away? Was she kidnapped or killed? The answer to that question burns a hole in Talmadge's heart.
He is a taciturn man, and he has little contact with other people, save for Caroline, who tends to the townspeople's medical care, and the native American men who bring their horses through each spring and camp nearby.
One day Talmadge finds two nearly feral teen girls hiding in the orchard. He tries to make contact with him, but they are afraid. He leaves them food and blankets, and soon he breaks through to talk with Jane and Della. They are both pregnant and scared to death. He convinces them to come live inside his home, and has Caroline check them out medically.
Slowly, Talmadge discovers where the girls came from and he goes there in an misguided attempt to find out what happened to them and why they left. The girls fled a bad man and a worse situation, and Talmadge's discovery of this leads to a tragic event.
In his mind Talmadge hopes that by taking care of these girls, he can make up for not taking good enough care of his sister. Her disappearance changed his life forever, and this is a chance to redeem himself and have a family of his own.
The book alternates telling Talmadge's and Della's stories, but to say more would be to reveal parts of the story that are best left discovered by the reader herself, and this is a beautifully written story you will want to discover for yourself.
Talmadge is one of the most indelible characters in recent memory. His story is one of loyalty, redemption and the importance of family, whether it's the one you are born into or one you create. Congratulations to Amanda Coplin who won the Barnes & Noble Discover Writers Award for Fiction last night in New York City. The story is here.
The Orchardist made many Best of 2012 list, including my Most Compelling Books of 2012, and if you haven't read it yet, it's now in paperback.
It is a beautifully written story of early 20th century eastern Washington state. William Talmadge and his sister tend an orchard after the death of their mother. One day his sister goes into the forest to gather herbs and never returns. All they ever find of her is her apron and her bonnet. Talmadge is devastated by her disappearance and spends the rest of his life haunted by this event. When, as an older man, two young, pregnant girls running away from a life of abuse, arrive in the orchard, he is more than ready to invite them into his life wanting only to protect and care for them.
The beginning of this book was a complete page turner, being both reflective and spellbinding. Her description of sunlit days amongst the apricots and apples evoked my senses and totally captured my imagination. This book that started as such an emotional and touching story unfortunately wasn‘t able to hold onto the beautiful rhythm. The second half of the book was both underwhelming and seemed to drag on indefinitely. I wish the author had shortened the book by about 150 pages which would have made for a tighter, more stunning story.
This was a debut novel and I am glad that I read The Orchardist. Amanada Coplin writes with style and flair. Her ability to combine both lyrical and sparse prose shows a talent that leaves me wanting to see what she does next.
William Talmadge is an orchardist in the Pacific Northwest at the turn of the century. He is no longer a young man and he carries a continuing grief for his sister who disappeared one day into the woods and was never seen again when they were both still children. It is this history which perhaps allows Talmadge to tolerate two young girls who appear on his property, both pregnant and traumatized. Talmadge is drawn to the girls, wants to care for them and provides them with food and a place to stay…but it is an uneasy alliance. Talmadge’s long time friend, Caroline Middey who is the local midwife, cautions Talmadge about his involvement with these two girls, named Jane and Della. One day men arrive at the orchard with guns, and what unfolds is both tragic and unexpected, and has long reaching consequences for all the characters, including Jane’s newly born daughter, Angelene.
She was like an egg encased in iron. She was the dream of the place that bore her, and she did not even know it. – from The Orchardist, page 418 -
The Orchardist unfolds over decades and centers primarily on Talmadge, a gentle loner who longs for a family, and three women: Caroline Middey, practical and motherly; Angelene, who represents hope for the future; and Della, a lost young woman who is angry and searching for herself. Of them all, it is Della who is the most difficult to understand and the character who stands on the outside. Filled with despair and grief, Della leaves the orchard and the man who wants to raise her as his own – she goes out into a world filled with uncertainty and violence and struggles to find comfort where there is none.
And then other things distracted her. Drinking, but that was not all of it. Riding horses wasn’t enough anymore, to access that despair that she needed so badly. - from The Orchardist, page 147 -
If Della is less than sympathetic at times, it is Talmadge who tugs at the heartstrings of the reader. He wishes to right the wrong in his life (the unexplained disappearance of his sister) by creating a family with Angelene, Caroline and Della – but fate and a sense of inevitability stand in his way.
She fought against the same force against which he fought. Fate, inevitability, luck. God. He would fly in the face of this force now, for her. If she could be freed from it, he would free her. He would make it all up to her, now. - from The Orchardist, page 342 -
The Orchardist examines grief, loneliness, the healing force of nature and solitude, redemption, and the search for one’s identity. The novel’s sense of place and time is strong, with beautiful and lyrical descriptions of the Pacific Northwest and more specifically, the isolated life an an orchardist in the early part of the twentieth century.
Strengths: descriptions of nature, characterization – very literary. Captures time and place well.
I then rushed home to finish the remainder of the book, and found that what I adored in the first half actually turned to an irritation in the second half. Talmadge, in the first half, is a protector, a gentle giant, and someone who looks out for the girls he meets. However, while his character really doesn't change, the fact that he hardly talks to people, doesn't ever open up, and doesn't share key pieces of information with Angelene really irritated me. I also found it frustrating that his character basically ignored those close by at times, only to focus his efforts on the unreachable. I know it was mentioned that perhaps Della needed him more, but so did Angelene.
I think this is why the character of Caroline was more appealing to me - she seemed to be the grounded one for Angelene and didn't shy too much away from telling her what was going on, or pointed out to Talmadge what he should do. Why neither adult found it necessary to ensure she went to school though, is still a mystery to me.
Perhaps the personality traits were ones that Coplin was aiming for - they are secluded, limited in their education, and with limited social interactions of any sort. The non-communicative styles of several characters seem to be a theme of sorts.
I also have to comment on the ending. I don't really know what I was looking for, but it just sort of...ended. I was somewhat underwhelmed, which is a bummer, because I actually loved Coplin's writing style. Her descriptions of the orchards and of Washington in general seemed to be spot on and actually transported me there easily.
I will be curious to see what others thought of this book - did it remind anyone of Steinbeck at all?
I found it interesting that love in this novel has nothing to do with sex. Talmadge's relationships with Jane and Della are non-sexual, like father/daughter relationships; and his relationship with Caroline Middey is the same, although in her case they are two friends who help each other out. Sex is mentioned in the book, but only in negative ways. I can think of three in particular: when it is mentioned that Talmadge had visited a prostitute Caroline recommended, when Michaelson's sadistic behavior is described, and when a few loveless scenes involving Della are described. So although this book is about love, it is nontraditional in its approach.
Another type of love is important to Talmadge, the love of his land. He shows this love by taking care of the land and receiving its gifts with gratitude. He does the same with the people in his world. Although he is always there for the people he cares about, he speaks only when necessary. In fact, all the characters in The Orchardist keep their thoughts to themselves. One of them, Cree, never speaks to anyone, but is a loyal friend when he's needed.
The Orchardist creates a beautiful world through the author's careful writing (mentioned many times by other reviewers). The scenes are excellent, but what impressed me the most was the way Amanda Coplin described the thoughts of her characters. Here's an example from Caroline Middey's point of view:
And that was the point of children, thought Caroline Middey: to bind us to the earth and to the present, to distract us from death. A distraction dressed as a blessing: but dressed so well, and so truly, that it became a blessing. Or maybe it was the other way around: a blessing first, before a distraction.
I would recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys character oriented fiction and American history.
Steve Lindahl - Motherless Soul and White Horse Regressions
This story is incredibly well told but it is so sad. The characters go through so much that I kept hoping they would find some peace and happiness. Like life, not everything is tied up in the end in a neat bow. Some characters seem to escape their due punishment while others never stop suffering for the sins committed against them. While this book left me feeling rather melancholy I enjoyed the story and couldn't put it down. This was an excellent debut novel by a gifted author.
William Talmadge is a man of quiet tenacity. He has lived alone for forty years, nurturing his fruit trees and living by the simple rhythm of the seasons. His orchards are his anchor, and he needs little else but the companionship of Caroline Middey, the midwife and herbalist who lives down the road.
Talmadge is well on his way to old age when he discovers two pregnant girls living on his property. Sisters Della and Jane were orphaned and abused, and are rightfully mistrustful of men. They behave like feral animals, circling and watching, darting in to devour the food Talmadge leaves for them before disappearing again. Eventually he earns a measure of their trust, and they allow him to care for them after a fashion. But still they are not safe. The man from whom they escaped is on the hunt, and tragedy looms.
Through his relationship with the girls and their offspring, Talmadge learns that sometimes all the love and self-sacrifice in the world is not enough to repair a damaged spirit. Della is bent on self-destruction and revenge, and Talmadge pays a price for his deep and persistent concern for her well-being.
Coplin's writing is the polar opposite of purple prose, restrained to a degree that sometimes left me wishing for richer descriptions and greater emotional depth. Higher highs and lower lows would let us know the characters more intimately and feel more connected to their experiences. Stylistic choices notwithstanding, Coplin's prose displays a careful polish.
When I started this novel, it felt like I was going to spend forever getting through it. About 75 pages in, I finally connected with story and style, and read long into the night. Eight years in the making, THE ORCHARDIST will garner much-deserved acclaim for new novelist Amanda Coplin.
I truly did not want this book to end and wish I could read it again for the first time.
My thoughts: I confess: the description of this novel did not entice me to read it, but as it kept appearing on "Best of the Fall" lists, I took a chance, and I'm so glad I did. I think the word haunting may be approaching overuse for describing novels, but in the case of The Orchardist, it's apt. Coplin's writing is as haunting as her characters:
"She'd had the look of departure about a year before she disappeared. A watchfulness. Stirrings of restlessness in a creature otherwise inimitably patient."
The pace of the novel is also somewhat haunting. The novel is told in vignettes of varying length and time moves slowly sometimes and quickly at others. The story always flows beautifully, and I found myself reading it slowly to savor its stillness and depth.
Favorite passage: "And that was the point of children, thought Caroline Middey: to bind us to the earth and to the present, to distract us from death. A distraction dressed as a blessing: but dressed so well, as so truly that it became a blessing. Or maybe it was the other way around: a blessing first, before a distraction. Caroline Middey scrutinized this point; did not know if the distinction was important. (But all distinctions are important.)
The verdict: The Orchardist is simultaneously heart-breaking and heart-warming. It's a beautifully rendered debut novel, and Coplin's prose is as haunting as Talmadge himself.
Focused on the life of William Talmadge, Ms. Coplin invites us into his mind as well as the minds of those he encounters during his life, most of which is spent on his orchard in the Pacific Northwest during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Talmadge tends to his trees and his basic human needs alone for decades before the day two young sisters steal some of his apples from his wagon while he in town selling them. He does not go after the girls and they later turn up on the edge of his field watching him.
The sisters are young, pregnant, and hungry. They have run away from somewhere and/or someone. He generously leaves food for them,, allows them to enter his home while he is in the orchard and slowly takes them into his lonely life.
The following years bring happiness and grief, fear and wonder, love and friendship.
The epic story of Talmadge's life is so wonderfully articulated, it is amazing that this is a first novel. The descriptions of the people, the trees, the chores of everyday life are tenderly written.
I looked back in my notes to see where I first heard about this novel and found a short review in Entertainment Weekly. Stephan Lee writes: "There are echoes of John Steinbeck in this beautiful and haunting debut novel set in early-20th-century Washington State."
I will agree with Mr. Lee. John Steinbeck's influence is easy to recognize, whether intentional or not.
The other thing I enjoyed about this novel is the lack of quotation marks for dialogue. I found myself slowing down to make sure the words were spoken and not thought. The slowing of my reading allowed extra time to take in every lush sentence.
Well worth the time. A truly enjoyable reading experience.
Talmadge is a quiet man working his orchards and still not over the disappearance of his sister years ago, when one day 2 young girls dirty, hungry and pregnant have wandered onto his property looking for food. The girls Jane & Della & Talmadge finally come to tentative understanding that he will leave them food and he will not try to touch them or talk to them. When the girls go into labor only one baby lives; Angeline, who becomes a huge part of Talmadge’s life, but there is a man looking for these girls and the events of that day will haunt all their lives forever.
This is not a happy story but there is something about it that grabs at your heart plus the imagery of the orchard and the time period is done so beautifully. I am finding it very hard to put into words the emotions this book evoked and honestly I’m not sure if it would have done the same without Mark Bramhall’s narration.
Mark Bramhall’s narration is pretty much a straight read, yet is compelling at the same time. I’ll be honest I don’t usually like straight reads I like variation of characters but Mark Bramhall has this voice that gets your attention with its calm fluidity. I can’t image anyone else’s voice being as perfect for this book as his.
I think this is one of those books that will stay with me awhile and the sad people in it, yet this books is so beautiful , lyrical and flowing. What amazes me is this is a first novel I think Amanda Coplin will be an author to watch and I look forward to more from her!
Author Amanda Coplin, despite her youth, displays a sure touch in the descriptions and dialogue of this majestically paced story of loneliness, loss and love of the land. The major characters here - Talmadge, Della, Caroline Middey and Angelene - come completely and realistically to life under Coplin's hand, each reflecting the losses suffered, as well as the solace sometimes found in solitude and work done well.
Talmadge himself is the central enigma of the story. His habitual, sometimes almost maddening, reticence in all things is central to the tragedies which befall him and the others. (Indeed, all of the characters seem to have a problem with looking anyone in the eye, always looking at a space just over the adressee's shoulder, or at a corner of the room, or desk. Its' almost like an epidemic of autistic behavior. Or perhaps just shyness.) But this quiet hesitance to speak is understandable, given the fact of the early loss of his beloved sister and how he spent most of his life subsequently alone, up until the arrival of the two pregnant girls, Jane and Della. The only one who outdoes Talmadge in his silence is Clee, the mute Indian horse trainer. And then there is the character 'mid'way between them, the herbalist and midwife, Caroline Middey, who has also spent most of her life alone, although there is a hint of sorrow there too, in the loss of a beautiful onetime young Indian apprentice, Diana. With the mention of a shrine-like photograph of this girl in Caroline Middey's house, one wonders if this might be a tastefully veiled hint at a romantic relationship between the two women, which would also help explain the completely platonic bond between Middey and Talmadge.
The character Della is a mystery in herself, like the wild and half-broken horses that arrive in the orchards every year, she remains "unknowable" in her "unhandledness." Having been sexually mistreated and traumatized early in her life, by the whoremaster Michaelson (who may also be her father) and stillborn twins, she comes across as a wild thing, ruled by whims and passions without regard to consequences. Her niece, Angelene, brought bloodily into the world by Talmadge, seems the only nearly normal character, a product of being guarded and looked after by Caroline Middey and Talmadge.
The sure but stately progress of the plotline and the elegance of the language and its halting exactness brought to mind Reynolds Price and his SURFACE OF EARTH trilogy, or perhaps Marilynne Robinson's GILEAD, Jeffrey Lent's IN THE FALL, or Molly Gloss's THE HEARTS OF HORSES, which is, like this novel, set in the Pacific Northwest of the early 1900s.
I kept looking for significance in the characters' names (my own little quirk as a reader), but didn't really find much, aside from Caroline Middey, the midwife. But then there was the villainous, opium-addicted Michaelson, who, reformed, began calling himself DeQuincey, so of course I thought of the DeQuincey who authored "Confessions of an English Opium Eater." I couldn't help but wonder if Coplin considered this when she had this villain take a new identity.
Well, whaddayaknow? I guess I found something to say about the book after all. Plenty has already been said, but the comments I found most annoying were those quibbling and complaining about the dropping of quotation marks from dialogue. My response: So what?
I'll finish where I started. A stunningly beautiful book. Very highly recommended.
When Jane and Della arrive at the orchard they both are pregnant and will not allow Talmadge near them. He had to lure them in like you would a frighten and abused animal. And abused they had been. He sets out food for them. They watch and follow him at a safe distance. Jane is the elder. Talmadge confides in his friend Caroline Middey about the girls. Caroline is skeptical but assists. The babies come and only one lives, they name her Angelene. Jane is her mother.
Talmadge is a quite character but not a peaceful one. He has a lot of inner turmoil and discontentment. You want Talmadge, Jane, and Della, to be a "happy" family but it can't be due to the horrific and tramatic past events all parties have suffered through. Instead of Angelene being the connective thread she turns into somewhat of a pawn for Talmadge. She is loyal to him. Della, the rebel, is restless throughout the entire novel. Della not only drained Talmadge but, in my opinion, she was a burden on me the reader.
The Orchardist is equally full of extreme beauty and tragedy. The scenes in the orchard allows the reader to escape from all the darkness of the characters. Coplin describes the landscape so vividly that you feel as if you are walking down the rows of plum, apple, and apricot trees. My favorite scenes from the book is the yearly arrival of the horses to the orchard. Like the characters you anticipate their arrival. Words escape me as to how to describe it. During a difficult time in the novel, Angelene gives Della a gift and it was so touching. It was one of those "hidden nuggets" that are in well written novels that the reader may miss if they aren't paying close attention.
Like Twelve Tribes of Hattie, I did not love or hate The Orchardist but I cannot not deny the fact that it is beautifully written. These aren't lollipop characters. They are dark, complex, and haunting. There is also a calmness about them that allows you to enjoy the story. The beginning and ending of this novel is quite enveloping but you can get bogged down in the middle.
ARC provided by publisher. In no way does this influence my review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.
Set in the early years of the 20th century, there is nevertheless a timeless quality to this novel. Talmadge’s orcharded valley is a haven for him and for the girls alike. Rich, lush descriptions of the natural world and Talmadge’s simple life draw the reader into his world, but Coplin does not sentimentalize. Talmadge’s world is also a hard one, and the girls’ lives have not been easy, nor do they get any easier. Captivating and eloquent.
Impressive first novel by Ms Coplin! Dense, unsentimental, metaphoric, The Orchardist transcribes the slow and elemental nature of life in late 19th century Washington. Through the concrete minutiae of Talmadge's, the "orchardist's", life, the author unveils grand themes of love and guardianship, growth and fruition, confirming Henri Nouwen's opinion that what is most personal is also most universal. At 426 pages, it can seem at times more dilatory than expansive (but economy of words is a preference of mine--in American storytelling I prefer the spare sentences of Willa Cather to the voluminous paragraphs of Herman Melville).
7.5 out of 10 Recommended to fans of American literature and historical fiction.
Talmadge's life changed when he protected two abused teenage runaways, Jane and Della, that wandered on to his orchard, pregnant and desperate. Though the two girls were wary and feral, Talmadge gave them a place to live, fed them, and as much as the girls would let him, cared for them. The subsequent relationship he had with Angelene was heartwarming, and to visualize this middle aged man working his orchard carrying a baby in a papoose on his back was incredibly endearing and revealing of the character of this very private man. Caroline Middey, Talmadge's long-time, blunt friend, who assumed the motherly role to Angelene, rounded out this unusual family. Talmadge, Angelene, and Caroline, made a special life for themselves. They loved one another dearly, and it was an unconditional love. They took care of one another, and they were a family in the truest sense of the word.
Essentially, this is a story about family and all of the love and hardships that go with it. It's about standing by one another in the toughest of times. It's about being present during the happy, beautiful moments, but also during the disappointments and regrets.
My only complaint about the novel was that it was a little too long, and it dragged in places. However, it was well-written, and although not a fast-paced story, I was completely engaged throughout. If you like character-driven stories, then I highly recommend this book.