The Orchardist: A Novel by Amanda Coplin
I first became aware of this novel when we ran an interview with the author in Prime Number Magazine, which you can read here: Interview with Amanda Coplin. It sounded like something I might be interested in, so when I saw it listed among available titles for audio books in my Audible.com account, I got it.
The novel is the story of William Talmadge who arrives in Western Washington with his mother and sister following the death of his father, a miner. The family settles on a homestead and begins to develop an orchard, and when the mother dies the brother and sister continue to run it on their own. The mysterious disappearance of the sister one day shapes who Talmadge becomes as a man. Two girls arrive, pregnant runaways, and Talmadge is inclined to help them even when they steal from him, rather than alert the sheriff. The rest of the book reveals his relationship with those girls and the daughter of one of them.
These are great characters: Talmadge himself, the runaways and the daughter, and the older woman in town, Caroline Middy. They’re wonderfully imagined and drawn, and even when they’re making mistakes, the reader is deeply sympathetic. There’s a bad guy in the story, too, of course, and he’s pretty bad, but he’s not so evil as to be unbelievable. The tale progresses in more or less linear fashion, told in alternating points of view–Talmadge, Caroline Middy, the runaways, the girl.
Apart from the terrific characters, the great detail of the time and place stand out here. The work of running the orchard, of selling in the local market, of traveling in the region by wagon, mule, or train–all of this is wonderfully convincing. Coplin has done an outstanding job of creating the environment for this story, which is set at the end of the 19th Century and early 20th. For this, I’m full of praise.
On the other hand, I am less thrilled with the inner lives of these characters. They are constantly debating with themselves–should I do this, or that, should I reveal this, or not that, what should I do? With the exception of Caroline Middy, they all seem too afraid to speak their minds, and as a result the story drags somewhat. But perhaps my frustration with these internal struggles is a function of having listened to the audio version of the book. Skipping ahead, which I might have done if I’d been reading, wasn’t an option!
Still, my overall impression of the book is very favorable, and I’m glad to have experienced it.