In 1857 Talmadge came into the valley with his mother and sister. He was nine and Elsbeth was eight. His father had died in a silver mine collapse and his mother wanted to get as far away from mining as she could. They walked forever and Talmadge thought maybe they too had died and this was what heaven was like. They settled in a valley of yellow grass and two sickly apple trees. They tended the trees and planted vegetables.
In the spring of 1860 his mother died of respiratory disease. Two years later when Talmadge was fifteen, he and his sister harvested two acres of apples and one of apricots.
In 1865 Elsbeth went into the woods to collect herbs. She didn’t return. Talmadge searched frantically as did the neighbors. He even offered a reward. His Indian friend, Clee found her bonnet and picking basket, but his sister was ghosted away without a trace. For the rest of his life Talmadge would grieve the loss of Elsbeth.
“At times he could imagine her fate matter-of-factly, he could distance himself from it: he had had a sister who had disappeared into the woods, and no one knew what had become of her…. But other times even his flesh was sensitive to the air, and what could have befallen her – and what she had suffered – tortured him. The litany of possibilities always hung about him, and during periods of weakness he turned to it, scrolled through it; amended some possibilities, added others.”
That loss is what molded Talmadge, a solitary orchardist. The story begins when he is forty years old and has grown his orchard to twenty-five acres and his land to four hundred. Two teenage sisters appear and steal his apples as he dozes next to his market wagon. He lets them get away with the theft, noticing their grossly swollen bellies, filthy faces and tangled hair. They turn up in his orchard and like wild strays, stalk him, running when he approaches. He leaves plates of food on his porch. When he’s gone they devour it and raid his cabin for the rest of his food. The girls, Jane and Della, hang out in the orchard, always wary of Talmadge. He and his friend, herbalist Caroline Middey, assist the girls when they go into labor at the same time. Jane has a healthy girl; Della’s child is stillborn.
Gradually Talmadge learns the horrific background of Jane and Della. They have escaped from a brothel staffed with little girls. The owner is searching for them. He gets wind that Talmadge might have them and comes looking. Seeing him from the distance, the girls jump from a tree limb with nooses around their necks. Jane dies. Della must have hesitated for a moment because Talmadge is able to catch her and pay off the brothel owner.
Now Talmadge has a family: Della and Jane’s baby Angeline. With Caroline Middey’s sage advice and support he cares for the two. Angeline is a model child who grows close to Talmadge and Caroline. Della is another story. Her traumatic childhood is a monster that will never give her peace. She has trouble relating to Angeline. The five hundred plus page novel is the love story of Talmadge’s unwavering quest to help Della for the rest of his life.
This is a remarkable first novel. In an interview with the director of the Oregon Humanities Center, Coplin explains the genesis of the story, the literary influences on her work and her thought processes leading to the experimental techniques she employs. There are no quotation marks for the dialog. That takes a bit of getting used to but promotes an intimacy between the reader and the characters. She was influenced by Virginia Wolfe and William Faulkner who excel in revealing the rich inner lives of their characters. In The Orchardist both the outer landscape of the Pacific Northwest and the inner landscape of the quiet western people are lovingly laid out for the reader to ponder.
Why is this very quiet, very intense book garden-friendly? An orchard is part of the natural world, that is, the natural world influenced by man. Throughout the book each character takes solace and learns from the natural world. The young girl, Angeline dreams of sharing her garden with Della.
“When she knew she was looking for a plant for her very own garden …her interest became singular and almost obsessive. What a delicious feeling to walk through the fair with her own bag upon her arm, driven by her own purpose. Here are my pumpkins, Angeline would have said to Della, if Della came through in the fall.”
Caroline Middey in her garden reflects on the nearness of death.
“But the knowledge seemed new – she was going to die, like all the others, and the knowledge was absorbed by the garden, which simultaneously cradled her and drew her out of herself, into the perfume, into the noise.”
Talmadge, so intimate with the seasons of the orchard, is at one with his plants in his last days.
“The air had something to do with the light and the quality of light – piercingly golden – and also the lives of the trees, exuding oxygen, the air that silently racked the cabin. The air he drew into his lungs still had something of the trees’ inner life about it, the saturated dreams of chlorophyll and sunshine and water, gravity and roots and the roots’ design. Fruit. This was autumn light. Somehow he had always known this would be the season into which he would disappear.”