The Orchardist is set in small-town America, on a fruit orchard that was built long before industry claimed the raising of apricots. The book spans several decades but focuses on the first few years at the turn of the twentieth century, between 1897 and 1911. It is threaded with beautiful scenes of the American West: wild horses being corralled, flicking their sweat and majestic manes, thundering their hooves; cowboys watching the twilight from a front porch while they roll their smokes; autumn hills, caught in the frame of the window on a newborn steam engine; Talmadge’s orchard itself, blushing with blossoms. Yet this book isn’t really about being an orchardist in Washington State at the turn of the century. It’s about longing, and the beginning of life and the end of life, and the simplistic living that goes on in the midst of what happens to us. "The trees bordered the pasture, which was filled with long grass, uncut and uneaten by any horses. The sound of water and the sound of wind in the trees, which were fed by the creek and so were partial to the creek, occupied Talmadge as he slept and woke. It was a sound highly expressive, highly communicable. He listened and thought, Yes, Yes". Someone asked me on Twitter a couple days ago if I was "enjoying" this story while I read it. I told her that, given its subject matter, “enjoying” didn’t feel like the right word. The novel touches upon topics that disturb me, that make me angry and disgusted because I know they exist in the world.
I don’t know that it’s the goal of every book to be enjoyed. Some books are written to speak, to move. To disturb, to challenge. More appropriate than "enjoying", I think, would be to say that this novel got into me. In places, it reminded me of the way my mother tried so hard, for years and years to help my father before she finally understood that his soul had been broken beyond repair. And yet hope, hope is so precious. This novel made me feel. Hours after finishing it, I’m still remembering its scenes, wondering about the characters. Replaying the final few chapters. I especially loved a Christmas scene near the beginning that was so fleeting and yet so lovely, rustic and believably "family at the turn of the century", pressed into the book’s pages like a smile before a day drained of light. And that’s what this book is about family. Fathers, whether bonded by blood or hope. Daughters made, not by nature, but by the bonds that are created when nature pushes mankind into a hollow sinkhole and swallows. People who vanish and yet never really go away, and the feverish yearning to find them inside their anger. I think Coplin’s point in this work is that children carry us. Whether we live in joy or not, we birth a civilization that will go on without us. A future that will both remember and forget us. And maybe there is a certain beauty in the very idea that whatever we do, it can be the past someday.
It can be a hundred years ago. Yet somehow, because we lived, because we dented people, because we tried valiantly to make it and maybe scratch out a square of humanity somewhere in the world, we are beautiful. And that beauty in us can never die, because it is buried in the earth, like the roots of trees. Our children, civilization cannot exist without the fruit we leave on the wind. We are all orchardists. It doesn’t matter when we go; we all lived, we planted lives. This point is made clear in the mirroring of Talmadge’s tale with his growing realization that his life as an orchardist is dying in a twentieth century America that is beginning to rely less on independent farmers and more on raging industry. Life goes forward. What once was makes the future, and the mistakes are the soul of today. I don’t know that there is a conclusion beyond this truth itself: and that is that we go on. Life renews itself, through its children. That the author manages to create hope, life, warmth, peace, even the sense of "coziness" I so prize in books like those by Laura Ingalls Wilder, while peppering the tale with tragedy, is testament to her talent. She manipulates the reader in the very best way, I think: causing a symphony of emotions that mirror real life by stealing the euphoria of joy by violence, hopelessness, and the human tendency to rebel against hindsight’s preferences. It’s exciting to be standing on the cusp of Amanda Coplin’s career. Some people are comparing her to John Steinbeck. I see that.