William Talmadge, the orchardist, tends to his apples as if the trees were his children. It is the turn of the century in the Great Northwest and Talmadge is a gentle soul alone with his trees and his one in-town friend, Caroline Middey, for occasional company. Talmadge has lived this lonely life since the disappearance of his sister, Elsbeth. First-time novelist Amanda Coplin opens her book with a physical description of her protagonist:
“His face was as pitted as the moon. He was tall, broad-shouldered, and thick without being stocky, though one could see how he could pass into stockiness; he had already taken on the barrel-chested sturdiness of an old man. His ears were elephantine, a feature most commented on when he was younger, when the ears stuck out from his head; but now they had darkened like the rest of his sun-exposed flesh and lay against his skull more than at any other time in his life, and were tough, the flesh granular like the rind of some fruit. He was clean-shaven, large-pored; his skin was oily. In some lights his flesh was gray; others, tallow; others, red.”
It’s an unusual strategy but Coplin says, in an interview with The Oregonian, there was a reason for it. “The book opens with a physical description of Talmadge that’s a direct physical description of my grandfather,” she says. “That’s something that I selfishly did to celebrate him, I guess, and my family too.” http://s.oregonlive.com/A2hyJ7J. Not surprisingly, Coplin grew up in Washington State’s Wenatchee Valley, among her grandfather’s apple orchards. She writes poetically of the relationship between the man Talmadge and the trees he nurtures: apples, plums, apricots. Talmadge seems content with his Edenic life until one day, during his weekly trip to the market with a cart full of fruit, some of his merchandise is stolen by two teenage girls. Rather than chase them or scold them, Talmadge watches the girls, luring them closer with gifts of food, until they are willing to approach. The girls are run-aways from a man and a life of horror. On some level in The Orchardist, Talmadge seems to see the young girls as some replacement for his mother and sister and taken them in to raise, teach and care for. But women and apples. Soon, the life Della and Jane sought to escape has returned for them.
The Orchardist is dense and chewy, I’ve seen reviews that likened it to the orchards themselves. Sweet and dark. Ultimately, because Ms. Coplin received an MFA and MFA recipients seem unable to write anything likely to be called a happy ending, as do all Edens, Talmadge’s comes to an end. It’s a hard life, the earth is hard, and the world is changing, but to Talmadge the joys of living his days among God’s creations seem worth the sacrifices.
BOOK CLUB MENU
Green Salad: tear arugula and baby spinach into bite size pieces. Cut up a very ripe plum into long, thin slices. Sprinkle with sunflower seeds and drizzle olive oil and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper.
Corncakes: see https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2013/05/19/adventures-with-huckleberries/ for recipe
Fried Trout — this is one of the dishes Talmadge uses to tempt Jane and Della. I wouldn’t make this, I would buy it.
Award-Winning Apple Pie
Land-O-Lakes Recipe for the Award-Winning Apple Pie:
Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree, Andrews Sisters
The Gates of Eden, Bob Dylan
The Hazards of Love, entire album, The Decemberists
And finally, a special poem by my favorite poet
After Apple-Picking Time by Robert Frost