The Orchardist

The Orchardist

by Amanda Coplin


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At once intimate and epic, The Orchardist is historical fiction at its best, in the grand literary tradition of William Faulkner, Marilynne Robinson, Michael Ondaatje, Annie Proulx, and Toni Morrison.

In her stunningly original and haunting debut novel, Amanda Coplin evokes a powerful sense of place, mixing tenderness and violence as she spins an engrossing tale of a solitary orchardist who provides shelter to two runaway teenage girls in the untamed American West, and the dramatic consequences of his actions. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780062188502
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 08/21/2012
Pages: 448
Product dimensions: 6.36(w) x 9.12(h) x 1.42(d)

About the Author

Amanda Coplin was born in Wenatchee, Washington. She received her BA from the University of Oregon and MFA from the University of Minnesota. A recipient of residencies from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and the Omi International Arts Center at Ledig House in Ghent, New York, she lives in Portland, Oregon.

Read an Excerpt

His face was as pitted as the moon. He was tall, broad-shouldered, and thick without being stocky, though one could see how he would 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. His lips were the same color as his face, had given way to the overall visage, had begun to disappear. His nose was large, bulbous. His eyes were cornflower blue. His eyelashes nothing to speak of now, but when he was young they were thick-black, and his cheeks bloomed, and his lips were as pure and sculpted as a cherub's. These things together made the women compulsively kiss him, lean down on their way to do other chores, collapse him to their breasts. All his mother's sisters he could no longer remember, from Arkansas, who were but shadows of shadows now in his consciousness. Oh my lovely, they would say. Oh my sweet lamb.

His arms were sun-darkened and flecked with old scars. He combed his hair over his head, a dark, sparse wing kept in place with pine-scented pomade.

He regarded the world—objects right in front of his face—as if from a great distance. For when he moved on the earth he also moved in other realms. In certain seasons, in certain shades, memories alighted on him like sharp-taloned birds: a head turning in the foliage, lantern light flaring in a room. And there were other constant preoccupations he likewise half acknowledged, in which his attention was nevertheless steeped at all times: present and past projects in the orchard; desires he had had as a young man, worries, fears, of which he remembered only the husks; trees he had hoped to plant; experiments with grafting and irrigation; jam recipes; cellar temperatures; chemical combinations for poisoning or at least discouraging a range of pests—deer and rabbits and rodents and grubs, a universe of insects; how to draw bees. Important was the weather, and patterns of certain years, the likelihood of repetition meteorologically speaking, what that would mean for the landscape; the wisdom of the almanacs, the words of other men, other orchardists, the unimportant but mostly the important words. He thought of where he would go hunting next fall. Considered constantly the state of his land, his property, his buildings, his animal. And mostly he thought of the weather that week, the temperature, and existence of, or potential for, rainfall; recent calamities and how he was responding to them; the position of the season; his position in the rigid scaffolding of chores—what he would have to do that day, that afternoon and evening, how he would prepare for the next morning's work; when were the men coming, and would he be ready for them? But he would be ready for them, he always was, he was nothing if not prepared. He considered those times in life when he had uttered words to a person—Caroline Middey or Clee, or his mother, or a stranger who had long forgotten him—he wished he had never uttered, or had uttered differently, or he thought of the times he remained silent when he should have spoken as little as a single word. He tried to recollect every word he had ever spoken to his sister, tried to detect his own meanness or thoughtlessness, his own insensitivity to certain inflections she might have employed. How long ago it was now. At times he fretted about forgetting her, though in fact—he did not like to admit this—he had already forgotten much.

Now, at his back, the shrouded bushels of apples and apricots rustled in the wagon bed, the wagon creaking forward beneath the weight; the old, old familiar rhythm in accordance with these leagues of thought. Dazzled and suspended by the sun. The mountains—cold—at his back. It was June; the road was already dusty. His frame slightly hunkered down, the floppy calfskin hat shielding his brow, under which was a scowl holding no animosity. The large hands, swollen knuckles, loosely holding the reins.

From the wheatfields he entered the town, and drew down the main street. Quiet. It was Sunday. The nearer church, he thought—the Methodist was on the other side of town—had yet to release its congregation. He hitched up outside the feed and supply store, watered the mule. While he was setting up the fruit stand—tugging forward each burlap-covered bushel in the back of the wagon and unveiling them and unloading them—a woman rounded the corner and gained the platform, approached him. Half her face was mottled and pink, as if burned, her mouth an angry pucker. She held defensively to her breast a burlap sack and bent and inspected the uptilted bushel of Arkansas Blacks. She reached for an apple but did not touch it; glanced dubiously at a bushel of paler apples he presently uncovered. What're those?

He glanced down. Greenings. Rhode Island Greenings.

When he spoke, his voice was low and sounded unused; he cleared his throat. The woman waited, considered the apples. All right. I'll take a few of those. From the folds of her skirt she brought out a dull green change purse. How much?

He told her. She pinched out the correct change and handed it to him.

As he filled the sack with fruit, the woman turned and gazed behind her. Said:

Look what the cat drug in. Those two looking over here like that, you aren't careful, they'll come rob you. Hooligan-looking. She sniffed.

After a moment he looked where she nodded. Down the street, under the awning of the hardware store, two girls—raggedy, smudge-faced—stood conspiratorially, half turned toward each other. When they saw Talmadge and the woman observing them, they turned their backs to them. He handed the burlap sack to the woman, the bottom heavy and misshapen with fruit.

The woman hesitated, still looking at the girls, then turned and nodded shortly to him, stepped off the platform, moved down the street.

From the wagon he retrieved his wooden folding chair and sat down next to the bushels. Wind gusted and threw sand onto the platform, and then it was quiet. Rain was coming; maybe that evening, or early the next day. The girls moved; stood now with their shoulders pressed together, looking into the window of the dry goods store. A gust of wind blew their dresses flat against their calves, but they remained motionless. He pulled his cap low. What did two girls mean to him? He dozed. Woke to someone addressing him:

That you, Talmadge? Those girls just robbed you.

He righted his cap. A slack-mouthed boy stood gaping at him.

I saw them do it, said the boy. I watched them do it. You give me a nickel, I'll run them down and get your apples back for you.

The girls had gotten farther than Talmadge would have expected. They made a grunting sound between them, in their effort at speed. Apples dropped from their swooped-up dresses and they crouched or bent awkwardly to retrieve them. The awkwardness was due, he saw, to their grotesquely swollen bellies. He had not realized before that they were pregnant. The nearer one—smaller, pouting, her hair a great hive around her face—looked over her shoulder and cried out, let go the hem of her dress, lurched forward through the heavy thud of apples. The other girl swung her head around. She was taller, had black eyes, the hard startle of a hawk. Her hair in a thick braid over her shoulder. She grabbed the other girl's wrist and yanked her along and they went down the empty road like that, panting, one crying, at a hobble-trot. He stopped and watched them go. The boy, at his side, looked wildly back and forth between Talmadge and the ragged duo. I can get them, I can catch them, Talmadge, he said. Wildly back and forth.

Talmadge, the boy repeated.

Talmadge watched the girls retreat.

What People are Saying About This

Salvatore Scibona

“Nearly everybody in the book compels your admiration, either for their courage or for the heavy work they do, all the time and without complaint, even when wicked men are hunting them. Transfixing. I love this book straight through.”

Holloway McCandless

“This is an extraordinarily ambitious and authoritative debut.”

Patricia Hampl

“A rare find—this debut novel that reads with masterful authority. Stately and passionate—a stunning powerhouse. THE ORCHARDIST, like Marilynne Robinson’s GILEAD, drills into history, portraying an apparently modest American way of life but finally presenting us with a great American elegy.”

Charles Baxter

“Patiently beautiful, THE ORCHARDIST builds its characters and its situations so carefully that the story becomes as real to us as this morning’s news. I am in awe of Amanda Coplin’s book, which does not feel like a first novel but a life’s work.”

Wally Lamb

“When you pick up THE ORCHARDIST, you will be lured at first by the lushness of the language. But soon enough the characters will take hold of you and you’ll read on hungrily, as if under a spell. It’s hard to believe that this is Amanda Coplin’s first novel.”

Ron Rash

“Amanda Coplin has depicted her northwestern landscape with such fidelity that readers will know its every sight, smell, and sound. Within this world are compelling characters and their equally compelling stories. THE ORCHARDIST is an outstanding debut.”

Bonnie Jo Campbell

“To read this mysterious, compelling, elemental novel is to immerse yourself in the world of an old folk song, in which the passions and sorrows of plain people rage unseen and then blossom as madly (and quietly) as apricot trees. In THE ORCHARDIST, Amanda Coplin shows us what’s unknowable.”


A Conversation with Amanda Coplin
Your novel is set in central Washington State at the turn of the 20th century, near the area where you yourself grew up. If you were to go to Talmadge's property today, describe what you would see.
In the last century and a half, a lot has changed in that part of the country. At the same time, certain areas, in the deep forest flanking the Cascades, for example, have changed hardly at all. I remember hiking with my family in the Wenatchee Wilderness area as a child and coming upon a decrepit cabin that was so old that it seemed to have become part of the landscape itself. It had been there for maybe a hundred years. No one had torn it down, it had not disintegrated; it had just stood there empty all those years. And so maybe Talmadge's cabin would be a relic like that, empty but still standing.
But more likely that cabin would be long gone, and replaced by a small, contemporary home, and surrounded by a more uniformly cultivated landscape. These new people would have a satellite dish, and neighbors. That would be a difference; there wouldn't be that same depth of forest surrounding them that Talmadge would have experienced, that same sense of solitude. And there wouldn't be horses coming out of the trees, but maybe teenagers on ATVs, in the winter.
The central character, Talmadge, is a loner with a warm heart. What inspired this character?
My grandfather. He and my grandmother owned apple, cherry, and pear orchards just outside of Wenatchee, and my cousins, brother, and I spent a lot of time there as children. Talmadge shares my grandfather's quiet demeanor, his intense work ethic, his sense of humor. I can see a lot of my grandfather in Talmadge, and to certain degrees my own father and brother. But, ultimately, the character is distinct from the person. Talmadge became an individual over time, with his own history and identity.
How does the disappearance of Talmadge's sister and the death of his mother in the beginning of the book influence his later response to the two sisters?
I think Talmadge experiencing loss at such an early age created in him an intense kind of need, one of the most basic needs of all: for human companionship. Also, in losing his sister, he was without someone to care for, which is another human need; he was responsible for her, and failed her. The fact that we never find out what happened to her—Talmadge never finds out—only agitates the wound. Despite the years that have passed, he has still not healed. And so that makes the introduction of the two girls in the latter part of his life particularly significant; his reaction to them is exaggerated because of this earlier experience of loss.
People have commented that the landscape is almost another character in the novel. What draws you to nature and enables you to imbue it with such palpable clarity and beauty?
Spending so much time in my grandparents' orchard had a major effect on my imagination. I not only played in the orchard and spun elaborate games with my brother and cousins, but I also spent time by myself, often with a book in hand, and wandered through the aisles, and read. My love of language developed with my love of the trees, and with silence and solitude.
In time, and especially during the writing of this novel, my own intense childhood experience in the orchard caused me to reflect on the symbiotic relationship between a person and their landscape. The physical environment isn't just a stage on which human drama plays out; there is a very real organic as well as spiritual relationship between a person's interiority and the earth, sky, and weather which surrounds them. Our dreams, hopes, and fears take shape from material of the natural world. It is a part of us; we need the landscape to imagine as well as to physically survive.
Talmadge has an Orchard. Do you have a favorite kind of apple?
The last few years I've grown fond of the Honeycrisp apple, cultivated in Minnesota. It's a delicious snacking apple, firm and sweet and a little tart. I'm also partial to Granny Smiths, an apple originally cultivated in Australia but made popular in the States by Grady Auvil, an orchardist from Orondo, Washington.
Who have you discovered lately?
The last really striking book I read was Sheila Heti's How Should a Person Be? There has been such a critical hullaballoo surrounding it, and I thought, well I'm going to read this book by this woman who is my contemporary, and see what the fuss is about. I was impressed by the risks she took, structurally and thematically, and while I agree with several of the criticisms aimed at the work, something about its spirit has stuck with me. I think it is a vibrant, brave, earnest book. I definitely look forward to what Heti does in the future.
Sheila Heti's novel has a relationship, in my mind, with work of other writers I've read in the last few years and loved, especially Joanna Kavenna, Celine Curiol, and Lore Segal.

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