At the turn of the 20th century, eastern Washington is largely rural and sparsely populated. Lives are bounded by family; those without, live alone. A man may be without companionship for so long that he loses the talent for it; he gets used to silence. The orchardist had a sister who disappeared; he blames himself. Now he lives primarily in his head.
Talmadge is not young, but he’s capable of managing his orchards alone. He lives by selling fruit in town, where he goes by wagon, but when two young pregnant girls steal his apples, Talmadge lets them get away. Sizing him up as a decent man, the girls follow Talmadge home. In time, he takes them in.
Jane and Della are runaways, terrified of the man who kept them. Although Talmadge is helpless to prevent tragedy when the man arrives with guns, he knows he should have been a better man.
Talmadge becomes a loving father to Jane’s daughter, Angeline (although love is not a word they use), but he is haunted by his failures. When long-absent Della gets in trouble, Talmadge tries to bring her back, to Angeline’s dismay. He lacks the words to explain but, by risking his life, Talmadge finally puts his ghosts to rest.
The author’s simple narrative style, which incorporates a minimum of dialogue, perfectly conveys the man’s isolation, his regrets, and, above all, his humanity. Coplin has a gift for the human touches that make each scene recognizable: women shell beans or hold a baby on a hip. And like the landscape lovingly described, the complicated men and women who grace our family trees come to life. The Orchardist is highly recommended.