The pretend orchardist

Sometimes I like to pretend . . . I’m not me.

Maybe it’s the mindset of a writer. Or, ah . . . maybe I’m just a little quirky. Either way, I like stepping outside myself occasionally to think about life in other places, other environments. That means taking a break from being a 27-year-old suburbanite who spends her days with words — in columns; blog posts; newspaper features — to become the a girl with dirt-stained jeans at work on a family farm. Or the wizened old farmer patiently churning apple butter over an open flame. Or the energetic country kid climbing a hay stack that stretches into the sky.

Having lived in the same town since I was two, it’s fun to imagine life elsewhere. I’m always peppering my boyfriend with questions as we cruise through far-flung places: “Where do you think people work around here? How do they have fun?”

On Sunday, I thought about being an orchardist. The grove was quiet as we climbed the hilltop, away from the din of the festival below — a sequestered spot in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Far from home. Out in the country, away the hubbub and the chaos . . . well, it just feels easier to breathe.

In keeping with my recent farming obsession, Graves Mountain Farm in Syria, Va., was a hay-scented playground. I thought about Amanda Coplin’s novel as we walked the rows of near-barren trees, feeling a cool breeze on my sunburned face. Though I know nothing about crops, I can appreciate the serenity of nature — and feel at peace in the mountains.

When we crested the hill in the orchard, I was so fixated on looking for apples that I didn’t bother turning around. I didn’t look back to see how far we’d come. But that was the best view: of the working farm and silos below; the crowded festival in the distance; the lodge on the hill. Mountains rising up beyond, lightly dotted with the colors of autumn. Lone apples in the branches just out of reach.

Book review: ‘The Orchardist’ by Amanda Coplin

In the wild Cascade Mountains when the West was young, a middle-aged farmer has known his share of heartache. Talmadge has suffered the loss of his parents, the disappearance of his sister; the one constant in his life is the orchard, a place where he finds peace and solace. He gets by on the sale of his apples, which he brings to town — and there he finds two sisters, both filthy and pregnant, swiping his wares.

Days pass after the theft — and he finds Della and Jane scrambling through his orchard. Drawn to the homestead on the hunch they’ll find a comfortable place to sleep and hide, the pair spend the days leading up to the births of their children in an idyllic haze. Too kindhearted to push them away, even when he senses danger, Talmadge allows the girls a safe haven. Until that world is shattered forever.

Told across the sweep of several lifetimes, Amanda Coplin’s The Orchardist is a moving and lyrical examination of family, guilt and devotion. Its principle characters are all haunted, damaged; they’re a people changed by the land on which they’ve lived and the suffering they’ve endured. Della is a teenager when she arrives on Talmadge’s property, walking on her sister’s arm away from a life of pain and uncertainty. The girls’ story is one of the novel’s focuses: where did they come from? And what are they going to do with two babies?

At its heart, The Orchardist is a dramatic and melancholy story. Seriously: the book was so heavy and sad that, at points, I had to put it aside and get out in the September sunshine. Jane and Della endure a world of hurt — and that’s the world into which Angelene is born. She’s innocent to the sins of the past but somehow responsible for them all the same. Talmadge does the best he can by her, but he’s an older man — a solitary man — and can only do so much.

Still. Talmadge never failed to impress me with his loyalty, devotion and ceaseless desire to try to do right by those he feels he’s failed — especially Della. The woman was a mess. Not that I didn’t get it; I mean, she had her reasons. And they were good ones. But it became emotionally exhausting trying to find her and make her see the life she could have had: one that seems completely out-of-reach after she makes a series of decisions altering everything. I wanted her to get it together . . . or for Talmadge to finally give up on her. But that was not to be.

Fans of literary fiction and stories evoking a very distinct era will be enveloped by The Orchardist. Coplin’s prose often reads like poetry, and her ability to evoke a mood — even a very somber one — was superb. It was impossible not to feel the magic of the orchard in the Pacific Northwest; everything about Talmadge’s world was entrancing. It’s a wonderful read for fall — and one I recommend.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 006218850X ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor on FB
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review