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Tuesday, August 21, 2012 - Page updated at 04:30 a.m.
'The Orchardist': A solitary man finds family and a world of hurt
By by Richard Wakefield
Special to The Seattle Times
by Amanda Coplin
Harper, 448 pp., $26.99
In 1857 a woman and her two children arrive on foot in a valley in Eastern Washington, where they establish an orchard near the small community of Peshastin Creek. The children, William and Elspeth, share their mother's yearning for a "solitude that forced you back upon yourself." For William Talmadge, the solitude becomes more intense when first his mother dies and, later, his sister disappears. In "The Orchardist" (at booksellers Tuesday), debut novelist Amanda Coplin traces William's life as he struggles to re-create a family, perhaps without recognizing what drives him.
Talmadge forms deep but strangely distant bonds with Clee, an Indian boy whose own past has left him so traumatized that he is literally mute, but with whom Talmadge communicates through an empathy that transcends words; and with Caroline Middey, a local herbalist, the closest thing to a physician the community offers, who honors the silence that Talmadge wears like a shroud. It is Clee who discovers the one trace of Elspeth, a bonnet, and it is Caroline who intercedes between Talmadge and the world — when she can.
When two girls, Jane and Della, both in their early teens and both pregnant, appear in Talmadge's orchard, the world intrudes. He forms an emotional connection with them that requires more than his habitual reticence. Maybe some rough math of compensation has replaced the loss that "his mind could not accept, could not swallow."
The connection will force him from his orchard again and again, sometimes with violent results. As if trying indirectly to solve the mystery of his sister's fate, Talmadge makes it his business to learn where the girls have come from. His search takes him into dark regions of cruelty and exposes him and the girls to danger and repercussions that play out over decades.
The orchard is a fragile Eden. Coplin, who grew up near Wenatchee, masterfully evokes its sometimes harsh, often lush world, as the girls make themselves at home: "There was a type of heat and light that was direct and overhead and bleached the orchard of color. The orchard at noon on the hottest days. And then there were mornings when the air was blue and soft, and the leaves of the trees looked like velvet."
Like the lens of a camera, the prose shifts focus from large to small, lingering on the details that give texture. Her prose is lyrical but always in the service of the story. Now and then the flow of the sentences stops abruptly to focus on a telling detail, the aroma of the trees in blossom, the play of light through the trees, that shows us how large the small things loom in a character's inner life.
Along with Talmadge's changing life come the larger changes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Coplin portrays not only the disorientation of a solitary man forced out of his safe, albeit incomplete, refuge but also the dizzying effects of progress. Traveling by train along a route he had previously walked, the orchardist ponders how he "had moved slowly all of his life. He was used to seeing things drawn out of themselves by temperature and light, not by harsh action. But this was something different. This was how people lived, now."
The world in which one lived on a human scale and at a human pace is disappearing, making it all the more difficult for Talmadge to find his wonted peace with the rhythms of the days and seasons.
"The Orchardist" is engaging and enthralling. The reader wants to turn each page quickly as the story develops, and wants at the same time to dwell on the lyrical moments of sunshine, soil and love.
Federal Way writer Richard Wakefield's latest book is "A Vertical Mile," a poetry collection published by Able Muse Press.
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