The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin
Wow! That's all I keep thinking about this book- just wow! I'd read great things about it, and let me say that it earned every single positive review. This is one of the best books I have read in a long time, and is now on my short list of favorite books of all time.
William Talmadge, his recently widowed mother, and his younger sister settled in Washington state following the death of Talmadge's father in the mid-1800's. They begin growing fruit orchards, and not much later, Talmadge's mother dies of a sudden illness. The two teenage siblings go on, running and growing the orchards, when one day a few years later, Elsbeth, disappears. Despite an intensive search, she is never found. William pushes forward, deeply depressed, finding solace in his trees and in the help and company of the local midwife herbalist healer Caroline Middey, who checks on him frequently.
After forty years of running the orchards by himself, becoming settled in his ways, one day Talmadge looks up and sees two pregnant young teenage girls at the edge of his property. Over the next few weeks he feeds them and even sets them up a place to stay in an old abandoned cabin on his property. Talmadge sees a poster in town offering a reward for the return of two girls matching the description of those on his property. He goes to check out the man offering the reward and finds that he is running a brothel, including offering child prostitutes, and Talmadge flees, vowing to protect the girls if he can. Soon after he returns, the girls go into labor, and Talmadge summons Caroline Middey to help deliver the babies. Sadly, only one of the three babies born survives. The man seeking the girls, Michaelson, hears that the girls may be staying at Talmadge's place and comes with an armed posse to take the girls back. Talmadge does what he can to stop him, but Michaelson's men begin searching the grounds, and unable to warn the girls, they are discovered by the men. Della, one of the girls, hides her sister's baby, and the two girls attempt suicide by hanging from one of the orchard trees, rather than go back with Michaelson.
Della survives their suicide attempt, although her sister does not. Talmadge ends up paying Michaelson for both girls plus three babies (although two are already dead), and Michaelson leaves. Della, suffering from yet another trauma in her young life, has an extremely hard time settling into life in the orchard or being a mother to the baby, which she names Angelene. She lets Talmadge do most of the work on the orchard as well as most of the caring for the baby. One spring, a couple of years later, Della leaves with a group of horse wranglers who have regularly to the orchard over the years. Over the next few years, she works with them, with a group of loggers, with orchard pickers, and in other jobs that she can find, always running from the hurt in herself. Talmadge does his best to raise Angelene in the orchard, but always holds the loss of Della in his heart next to, and mixed up with, the loss of his sister.
One day while in town, Della sees Michaelson outside the prison in the prison yard during the time the prisoners are allowed out for some fresh air. She determines then that she has to kill him and confesses to a murder that she didn't commit to get herself in the prison with him. She makes a half-hearted attempt on his life in the prison, which he survives, but she finds out that he is dying of a stomach illness. Talmadge gets word that Della is imprisoned and goes to her, hoping to help, to get her out, and finds her resistant to his pleas and offers of help. Over the next few months, Talmadge becomes obsessed with freeing her, neglecting the orchards and calling on anyone he can to help her. He eventually concocts a risky escape plan for her, which she refuses to participate in, and ends up landing Talmadge and his friend in jail, as well as extending Della's sentence.
When he is released, he finds not only that the fight has gone out of him, but also that he has found a way to let both Della and his sister go, as well as his guilt over not being able to help them. Della is eventually released also, but dies soon afterward. As the novel closes, both Talmadge and Caroline Middey pass away, old, and Angelene is left an orphan, incapable of caring for the large orchards by herself and in a changing time where fruit distribution is going global and changing the way the market works. She sells the land, but comes back years later to visit the graves of her mother, Della, and Talmadge and see how much her home has changed.
This is such a beautiful story. The characters are deep and interesting. The pace is a bit slow, but I felt it suited the time and the tenor of events perfectly. I never put the book down because I was bored- I was happy to take my time turning the pages and savoring every description of both the land and the hearts of the characters. It was wonderful to read about a good man with a good heart who tried his best to save a girl who didn't want to be saved, seeing him and Della both driven by the pain in their hearts in such different ways, and to see the good that Talmadge could effect by raising Angelene to be a good woman, even if he couldn't save his sister or Della. I really, really loved this one, and I hope you will too!