William Talmadge -- middle-aged, barrel-chested and with a face "as pitted as the moon" -- has lived alone in the valley of the Pacific Northwest's Cascade Mountains since he was 15 and his sister Elsbeth went out into the forest to collect herbs, but never came back. Except for when Nez Perce horse traders come through and camp on his land, he spends most days alone and silent, working in his orchard or dozing as he waits for churchgoers from town to buy apples, apricots and plums off the back of his wagon. Then one day, two runaway teen-age sisters -- both "raggedy, smudge-faced" and pregnant -- take shelter in the lines of trees that surround his simple cabin.
Whether Della and Jane's arrival ultimately changes the reclusive and damaged Talmadge's life for better or for worse is something each reader will have decide over the course of Amanda Coplin's much anticipated "The Orchardist," a novel as sparse, powerful, majestic and unsettling as the late 1800s frontier that serves as its setting.
"The Orchardist" takes readers to the late 19th century American frontier, when mail was delivered by Pony Express, cowboys fought Indians, and people looking for a fresh start (like Talmadge's mother) began trekking into the rough, unexplored lands that would eventually become the states of Washington, Oregon, Montana and Idaho.
Coplin, who grew up in her grandparents' orchards, said she wrote the novel as an homage to her grandfather and the childhood landscape that so affected her imagination. She was born in Wanatchee, Wash., the land that in "The Orchardist" Talmadge nurtures with the same simple devotion he shows Della, Jane and Jane's daughter, Angelene, who is born in the orchard.
But as Coplin painfully reminds the reader, even when you live in a place where the stars are "so thick and close you could walk right into them," loss and tragedy are as much as part of life as hope and love. And as she shows through the decisions Della and Jane make -- as well as Talmadge's reactions -- the only choices we can control are our own.
Coplin's prose is fresh and compelling, bringing Talmadge and the other characters to vivid life. The most memorable include Clee, who stopped talking the day his Indian village was raided and his mother kidnapped from their teepee, and midwife Caroline Middey, who cured a young Talmadge of venereal disease.
While the ending of this striking debut may not make every reader happy, it is, undoubtedly, the right one for both the book and for Talmadge, an unlikely hero who -- like the book -- is true to life and sweetly honest from beginning to end.
Cindy Wolfe Boynton is a Connecticut-based freelance writer and writing instructor.