In this exquisitely written story set in the Pacific Northwest as the 20th century begins, William Talmadge lives alone in a small cabin in the midst of his orchards of apples and apricots. He tends his fruit trees as he has for many decades, relying on intuition. He is used to his solitude, although he still yearningly remembers the sister who once was his companion before she mysteriously vanished into the forest. Talmadge enjoys the company of two good friends: a Native American man named Clee, who he's known since boyhood, and Caroline Middey, an herbalist.
"THE ORCHARDIST is an engrossing page-turner --- the kind of book that makes it nearly impossible to quit reading in order to attend to the reader's actual real life. The setting and characters (actually, every element) are pitch-perfect..."
It is a quiet Sunday in June when he loads bushels of his apples and apricots into his wagon bed and rides into town to set up his fruit stand. He chats with a customer, his voice rusty from disuse, until she points out two ragged and filthy young women standing nearby. The customer sniffs, predicting the teenagers are plotting to rob Talmadge. Ignoring them, Talmadge settles into a folding chair to doze the afternoon away, awakening to discover that his customer's prediction has come true. When he follows them, he notices each girl has a swollen belly; he lets them run off.
Three days later, Talmadge is high in an apricot tree when he glimpses the two girls again, walking from the edge of the forest up near his cabin, where they stand gazing at it. They stop talking to each other as he approaches. When he asks if they are lost, they simply look away and won't answer. He busies himself with lighting his woodstove and hauling water from the creek, noticing that the girls now sprawl in a border of the lawn, believing he can't see them. Finally, he fries up cornmeal cakes, which he leaves on the table with a bottle of milk. Hours later, when he returns from his work in the orchard, the food is gone --- and the girls have cleaned out his stores of eggs, milk, cornmeal and fruit.
The next day, Talmadge heads into town to replenish his pantry. He stops to eat venison stew with Caroline Middey. As he confides with her about his unusual company, she warns him to be cautious. When he says the girls are gone, she predicts they'll return, which turns out to be true a few days later. Again, the girls don't speak, but Talmadge leaves them a meal, which they eat outside.
Talmadge soon discovers a wanted poster for two girls named Della and Jane. They are to be returned to a James Michaelson in a town about 70 miles away from Talmadge's cabin. He can't resist traveling there, intent on unraveling the mystery of the two silent, pregnant teenagers. This trip is just one portion of a journey filled with unexpected twists and turns as Talmadge's life intertwines with those of two young strangers.
THE ORCHARDIST is an engrossing page-turner --- the kind of book that makes it nearly impossible to quit reading in order to attend to the reader's actual real life. The setting and characters (actually, every element) are pitch-perfect; it's nearly impossible to believe these three-dimensional characters and the you-are-there locale descriptions are the product of an author's imagination. In addition, Amanda Coplin's use of words is so inspired it is hard to resist rereading sentences repeatedly, which is a problem when you also must keep turning pages in order to discover the conclusion. I predict this title will find its way to many "Best of" lists. In the meantime, don't miss it.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on September 28, 2012