Review: Themes of loss majestically elevate spirit in Amanda Coplin's debut, 'The Orchardist'

Published Sept. 8, 2012

Amanda Coplin's somber, majestic debut arrives like an urgent missive from another century. Steeped in the timeless rhythms of agriculture, her story unfolds in spare language as her characters thrash against an existential sense of meaninglessness. Coplin's saga of a makeshift family unmoored by loss should be depressing, but instead her achingly beautiful prose inspires exhilaration.

When two starving, hugely pregnant sisters steal apples from Talmadge's fruit stand in 1900, they chance upon a man with a void to fill. Talmadge lost his father in a mine collapse when he was 9; his mother died three years later; and his teenage sister vanished from their orchard at the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in 1865. Now in his early 50s, Talmadge still dreams that she "might step out of the trees."

That sorrow goads him to protect the sisters, Jane and Della. They have escaped from Michaelson, an opium addict who brutalized the appallingly young girls in his brothel. When Michaelson tracks the sisters to Talmadge's orchard, the twisted hold he maintains over Jane provokes her to make a ghastly final escape. Talmadge is left to tend Della and Jane's baby.

In fewer than 100 pages, Coplin has established the brooding central theme for the rest of her novel: People don't get over their losses and failures; they try to make up for them in disastrous ways. Della eventually leaves the orchard for a life of transient jobs, seeking an impossible reconciliation with her sister. Talmadge devotes himself to Jane's child, Angelene.

He can't let her go, and Della can't outrun her demon. Why, when Talmadge learns that she's in jail, does he insist on trying to rescue a woman who doesn't want to be rescued? His attempt engulfs everyone he cares for. Coplin leaves us with Angelene, who has gleaned the only possible response to Talmadge's despairing conclusion that "surely there was no mercy in the world." Working alone in the orchard they had nurtured together, she feels "a depth of kinship with the earth . . . unshakable, rife with compassion." Angelene's epiphany equals in stark grandeur similar scenes in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights and Pat Barker's Another World — heady company for a first novelist, but Coplin's talent merits such comparisons.