I’ve read Amanda Coplin’s debut novel,The Orchardist, two times now, and I think I’m game for a third.
Set in the late 19th century, The Orchardist revolves around an aging orchard-keeper named Talmadge whose quiet life is interrupted by the arrival of two young, pregnant women on his land. They hide from him and steal fruit from his trees, but instead of turning them away he takes them in and helps them. Though his intentions are good, this act of kindness leads to a sudden, shocking event that will change Talmadge’s life forever, binding him inextricably to the younger of the two girls, Della, and to the infant who will become his adopted daughter, Angelene.
This book reminds me of a lot of things — Talmadge is quite similar to his fictional contemporary, Robert Grainier, from Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams. They share a similar near-silence, a personal history of loss, a dogged manliness that is neither aggressive or violent, and a subdued awe at the world they see around them. This is a great kind of protagonist to write, I’d imagine, because the power of your novel’s events can only echo through such a silent and solitary person, gaining power as it does so. The Orchardist waxes lyrical more often than Train Dreams does, but there’s a common thread running through them both — they are novels set in the West that are not quite Westerns, though they are paeans to its landscape and plumb the race,-class,-and-sex relations that were inevitable in such a harsh, land-grabbing life. Johnson and Coplin also use the newness of technology — in Coplin’s case, two separate incidents where characters are getting their photos taken for the first time — to show these characters’ innermost thoughts and fears. Della, for instance, begins to realize her feelings for the Nez Perce man named Clee:
She wondered that evening, watching Clee move around the fire preparing supper, what his image would look like, captured in a photograph….She thought of the photograph of him that was not taken. That night, taking out the photograph [of herself] as she lay on her bedroll and looking at it in the firelight — her own small, pale, startled image — she imagined this invisible counterpart alongside it, giving it substance and weight.
But what The Orchardist reminds me of most is, surprisingly (to me), Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Take the plot: Gentle older man takes in a dying woman, promises (not in so many words, with Talmadge, but through a sort of unspoken agreement) to care for and raise her child, delivers on his promise and passes the adoring child along into a future without him. A man who’d lived fully unto himself has been broken open, hurt and healed, changed by the arrival of another soul (not an uncommon plot line — I thought of the wonderful 1996 Czech film Kolya, and of course Baby Boom, with Diane Keaton!).
The wild card in Coplin’s novel — and the twist that sets this book apart from other, similar stories — is Della, the runaway girl whom Talmadge is never fully able to claim, to grasp. She’s a young woman constantly on the move, unable to hold still, to fully see others, to love or be loved. She’s damaged goods. It’s honestly heartbreaking, and I can’t think of another recent novel that’s done this so well. The way Coplin makes this hurt — for Talmadge, for the reader — can’t be overstated.
Della puts herself in danger constantly, as if curious in some distanced way whether she might live or die. It’s not that she doesn’t feel pain — she does — or that she doesn’t care — she does — but she lives in a sort of shadow world, a liminal existence that feels very realistic. Traveling the Northwest wrangling horses and felling trees, she volunteers for the most dangerous jobs every time. She rides rodeo, though the men around her disapprove, and even (or especially) Clee is disgusted.
Just last year a rodeo man had mounted a bull and been trampled to death before the bull reached the arena. The entrance was unnecessarily dangerous…That dread, that sureness that she was going to fail, was why she did it. She craved, for some reason — she would not look at it directly — that sense of despair.
Now, in the chute, hovering over the horse, her extremities emptied of feeling…She dissolved.
It isn’t the applause or occasional win that fills Della — “what she wanted was the despair….But the moment she was inside it, she failed to find what it was she wanted so badly. And so she would ride again.”
This — in both the death-defiance of the rodeo itself, and the feeling that drives it — calls up Jack Twist, the heartsick cowboy in Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain (Jake Gyllenhaal plays him in the movie). Jack knows what he’s risking when he rides rodeo, when he ventures repeatedly to Mexico for sex and engages in trysts with men closer to home; he’s waiting for the void.
In a world without therapists or Prozac, without any hard drugs beyond grain alcohol, and without much human kindness to take refuge in, the repeated adrenaline rush of danger keeps Della alive. But, as with all drugs, her tolerance only increases, and Talmadge is right to fear for her. Near the end of the novel, he finally leaves the orchard with a clear plan to save her — from the law, from her childhood abuser who has resurfaced, and most of all from herself.
Though all Westerns and their descendants are grim, The Orchardist has such a core of love and survival that its harsh reality never feels oppressive. Instead, as with Train Dreams — always and forever one of my favorites — the bonds between characters, their quiet perseverance, lends a sense of hope to the narrative. And with any novel set in the 19th-century American West, the sheer sense of promise, of what is to come for this fantastically wild part of the world (tragedy and triumph alike) simply can’t be contained. Even Della can feel it: “Each morning she was fortified by hope,” Coplin writes: “the future loomed.”
Coplin, Amanda. The Orchardist. HarperCollins, 2012.
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