I read The Orchardist because I, too, plan to set a novel in eastern Washington. But unlike you who were raised there, I’ve been there only twice years ago,
to visit my daughter at WASU in Spokane. I figured your book would give me a quick tour of the sunny side of my new state before I visit there again. But I got a lot more than I bargained for, and I’m very grateful. Your gripping tale of Talmadge, an orphaned orchardist doomed to mourn his sister Elsbeth who disappears when they are both children took me to a time and place tourists no longer get to visit. Talmadge lives on alone in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains at the turn of the last century. His only visitors are some Nez Perce men who hunt wild horses in the mountains and come each fall to help Talmadge harvest his fruit.
His solitude is disturbed when Jane and Della, two very young, very pregnant, very hungry girls, appear on his property. Their backstory complements Talmadge’s own, and you weave these entangling tales into a gripping narrative which they tell one another only in broken snatches reluctantly shared. These are not chatty people. So yours is partly a story about stories, about controlling narrative, sharing, or not sharing family secrets. You use no quotation marks to indicate where characters do actually speak aloud, perhaps because they do so rarely. Elsbeth has trouble putting her thoughts into full sentences. Cle, a leader of the Nez Perce, stops speaking altogether when his mother is snatched from their tepee by white raiders. Della barely speaks. Even a character’s internal monologues are terse as in “Why are we born?”
These are not people of the book, the café, or the salon; they are people of the earth, the forest, and the mountains. Homely, humble, patient, quiet, protective, and content with small pleasures, Talmadge himself seems an unlikely hero. He’s a kind man, an excellent orchardist, and, perhaps, a tragic figure, for he fails in imagination. With a bit more imagination, he might have predicted Della’s behavior more accurately. But maybe not. The local herbalist and midwife Carolyn Middey, a more communicative and worldly character, appears better attuned to the potential for disaster lurking in the many silences in Talmadge’s household. Talmadge, Middey, Cle, Jane, Della, and Jane’s child form a family marked by the blood of birth and the knowledge of death, but a kinship nonetheless.
Talmadge’s mother wanted him to know life on the land was hard and his life certainly is. But it is not without deep pleasures: the joy of hard
work, discovery, and omnipresent beauty. The orchard, surrounding forest, nearby canyons, creek, and mountains are glorious and your prose does them justice. “Then they came through dense forest, and stood on the rim of a valley illuminated as if it was the end or beginning of the world. A valley of yellow grass. Still but for a ribbon of water moving at the bottom of it.” The characters savor the smells, sounds, and colors around them all the time. When they are in town, they miss the fecund loveliness of the orchard. They lose or find themselves in the forest. Cle and his men materialize from it and Elsbeth literally loses herself there. Jane and Della hide there and Della often chooses to sleep in the woods rather than in the house or the lumber camps where she finds work. When Cle and his band of horse hunters emerge from the woods with their snorting, stomping unbroken herd they seem like vestiges of a forgotten time when wild creatures roamed unfenced peaks and Native Americans, also unfenced, hunted them.
Thanks for this moving and powerful book. I will see eastern Washington more clearly because I have read it.