by Amanda Coplin
This is one of those books that I hesitate to review because I’m not sure I can do it justice. It’s a stunning piece of work.
The Orchardist tells the story of William Talmadge – simply Talmadge to those who know him – a man living in solitude at the turn of the twentieth century. He is “utterly orphaned,” having lost first his father during his young boyhood, then his mother a few years later, and finally his beloved sister when he is a teenager. He and his sister remained on the acreage their mother secured after being widowed, cultivating a vast fruit orchard. Talmadge’s sister disappears seemingly into thin air one day, and he never really recovers from the loss. He stays on at the orchard, living alone in a two-room cabin and caring for his orchards as if they are his children. For more than forty years he lives this secluded life, regularly going into town to sell his fruit, but for the most part content in his quiet aloneness.
One day, two young girls turn up in his orchard. Hungry, bedraggled, feral – and both very pregnant. With little hesitation and no fanfare, Talmadge begins feeding the girls. They have somehow stirred an old grief in him over his sister who disappeared so many years ago. When he discovers that someone is looking for the two girls – and willing to offer a reward – he leaves the safety of his quiet existence and goes to investigate. What he finds is unspeakable, and he is determined to protect the two young girls.
I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s probably no surprise that tragedy strikes. Tragedy comes many times in a lifetime, and this story is mournful and full of sorrow . . . but also just very stirring and beautifully told. It is a story about how life experiences beyond one’s control can and do shape a person, how there are wounds that never heal, and how opening one’s heart brings the greatest joys and the deepest sorrows.
This book really got inside of me, and I can’t stop thinking about it. It transports the reader to a different time and place, and yet tells a story that on some level probably rings true for everyone. Coplin is an exceptional writer – her writing is reminiscent of both Steinbeck and Charles Frazier. I really loved this book and look forward to more of her work.