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Author Amanda Coplin was born in Wenatchee, Washington and her grandfather owned fruit orchards there. Both her memories of her grandfather and her love of the land find their way into her debut novel “The Orchardist.”
The book tells the story of Talmadge, a solitary fruit farmer in early 20th century Washington whose life is permanently altered after two runaway girls try to steal his produce. Coplin spoke with Here & Now’s Robin Young in a conversation that’s excerpted below. An excerpt from “The Orchardist” follows.
We understand your family tended orchards in Wenatchee, Washington, your grandfather owned them. What part of his work did you want to get across in this book?
He was a very quiet person, but he was also very passionate about his work and the trees, and that touched me deeply from a very early age. There was this real integrity to his work that I admired and hoped to find some day in my own life.
I remember as a child my cousins and brother and I would follow my grandfather around and pester him while he was trying to do his chores. And he was always keeping an eye on everything — the trees that were doing well, he would take care of the trees that had something wrong with them because of gophers or some sort of disease. And he had a variety of ways of caring for the trees, it was really interesting to watch.
The state of Washington and the land are also characters in the book.
It’s just a majestic landscape. I was born there and I visit there and I live in Portland now. I never get tired of how beautiful it is here. The mountains and the water and being so near to the ocean, everything is within reach and you have this feeling of history here and it’s just haunting. At times it can be scary. You get outside city limits, you go for a hike and there are those moments when you become disoriented and you think I am in a different world here. This is something I’m not used to and I feel uncomfortable and that’s important too, to be uncomfortable in a landscape like that, to feel how powerful it is.
It is not a thin book, writing it must have immersed you in that time and place. Did that change you?
This book — it’s a novel, it’s an art form, it’s an expression — but also personally and selfishly it’s sort of a capsule to contain a lot of things that I’ve been thinking about. A lot of the emotions, a lot of the things I felt about my grandfather and about other family members, my love of the orchard. I’ve been able to contain them in this book and I feel like I can move forward and I don’t have to obsess about getting it down any more.
His face was as pitted as the moon. He was tall, broad-shouldered, and thick without being stocky, though one could see how he would pass into stockiness; he had already taken on the barrel-chested sturdiness of an old man. His ears were elephantine, a feature most commented on when he was younger, when the ears stuck out from his head; but now they had darkened like the rest of his sun-exposed flesh and lay against his skull more than at any other time in his life, and were tough, the flesh granular like the rind of some fruit. He was clean-shaven, large-pored; his skin was oily. In some lights his flesh was gray; others, tallow; others, red. His lips were the same color as his face, had given way to the overall visage, had begun to disappear. His nose was large, bulbous. His eyes were cornflower blue. His eyelashes nothing to speak of now, but when he was young they were thick-black, and his cheeks bloomed, and his lips were as pure and sculpted as a cherub’s. These things together made the women compulsively kiss him, lean down on their way to do other chores, collapse him to their breasts. All his mother’s sisters he could no longer remember, from Arkansas, who were but shadows of shadows now in his consciousness. Oh my lovely, they would say. Oh my sweet lamb.
His arms were sun-darkened and flecked with old scars. He combed his hair over his head, a dark, sparse wing kept in place with pine-scented pomade.
He regarded the world—objects right in front of his face—as if from a great distance. For when he moved on the earth he also moved in other realms. In certain seasons, in certain shades, memories alighted on him like sharp-taloned birds: a head turning in the foliage, lantern light flaring in a room. And there were other constant preoccupations he likewise half acknowledged, in which his attention was nevertheless steeped at all times: present and past projects in the orchard; desires he had had as a young man, worries, fears, of which he remembered only the husks; trees he had hoped to plant; experiments with grafting and irrigation; jam recipes; cellar temperatures; chemical combinations for poisoning or at least discouraging a range of pests—deer and rabbits and rodents and grubs, a universe of insects; how to draw bees. Important was the weather, and patterns of certain years, the likelihood of repetition meteorologically speaking, what that would mean for the landscape; the wisdom of the almanacs, the words of other men, other orchardists, the unimportant but mostly the important words. He thought of where he would go hunting next fall. Considered constantly the state of his land, his property, his buildings, his animal. And mostly he thought of the weather that week, the temperature, and existence of, or potential for, rainfall; recent calamities and how he was responding to them; the position of the season; his position in the rigid scaffolding of chores—what he would have to do that day, that afternoon and evening, how he would prepare for the next morning’s work; when were the men coming, and would he be ready for them? But he would be ready for them, he always was, he was nothing if not prepared. He considered those times in life when he had uttered words to a person—Caroline Middey or Clee, or his mother, or a stranger who had long forgotten him—he wished he had never uttered, or had uttered differently, or he thought of the times he remained silent when he should have spoken as little as a single word. He tried to recollect every word he had ever spoken to his sister, tried to detect his own meanness or thoughtlessness, his own insensitivity to certain inflections she might have employed. How long ago it was now. At times he fretted about forgetting her, though in fact—he did not like to admit this—he had already forgotten much.
Now, at his back, the shrouded bushels of apples and apricots rustled in the wagon bed, the wagon creaking forward beneath the weight; the old, old familiar rhythm in accordance with these leagues of thought. Dazzled and suspended by the sun. The mountains—cold—at his back. It was June; the road was already dusty. His frame slightly hunkered down, the floppy calfskin hat shielding his brow, under which was a scowl holding no animosity. The large hands, swollen knuckles, loosely holding the reins.
From the wheatfields he entered the town, and drew down the main street. Quiet. It was Sunday. The nearer church, he thought—the Methodist was on the other side of town—had yet to release its congregation. He hitched up outside the feed and supply store, watered the mule. While he was setting up the fruit stand—tugging forward each burlap-covered bushel in the back of the wagon and unveiling them and unloading them—a woman rounded the corner and gained the platform, approached him. Half her face was mottled and pink, as if burned, her mouth an angry pucker. She held defensively to her breast a burlap sack and bent and inspected the uptilted bushel of Arkansas Blacks. She reached for an apple but did not touch it; glanced dubiously at a bushel of paler apples he presently uncovered. What’re those?
He glanced down. Greenings. Rhode Island Greenings.
When he spoke, his voice was low and sounded unused; he cleared his throat. The woman waited, considered the apples. All right. I’ll take a few of those. From the folds of her skirt she brought out a dull green change purse. How much?
He told her. She pinched out the correct change and handed it to him.
As he filled the sack with fruit, the woman turned and gazed behind her. Said:
Look what the cat drug in. Those two looking over here like that, you aren’t careful, they’ll come rob you. Hooligan-looking. She sniffed.
After a moment he looked where she nodded. Down the street, under the awning of the hardware store, two girls—raggedy, smudge-faced—stood conspiratorially, half turned toward each other. When they saw Talmadge and the woman observing them, they turned their backs to them. He handed the burlap sack to the woman, the bottom heavy and misshapen with fruit.
The woman hesitated, still looking at the girls, then turned and nodded shortly to him, stepped off the platform, moved down the street.
From the wagon he retrieved his wooden folding chair and sat down next to the bushels. Wind gusted and threw sand onto the platform, and then it was quiet. Rain was coming; maybe that evening, or early the next day. The girls moved; stood now with their shoulders pressed together, looking into the window of the dry goods store. A gust of wind blew their dresses flat against their calves, but they remained motionless. He pulled his cap low. What did two girls mean to him? He dozed. Woke to someone addressing him:
That you, Talmadge? Those girls just robbed you.
He righted his cap. A slack-mouthed boy stood gaping at him.
I saw them do it, said the boy. I watched them do it. You give me a nickel, I’ll run them down and get your apples back for you.
The girls had gotten farther than Talmadge would have expected. They made a grunting sound between them, in their effort at speed. Apples dropped from their swooped-up dresses and they crouched or bent awkwardly to retrieve them. The awkwardness was due, he saw, to their grotesquely swollen bellies. He had not realized before that they were pregnant. The nearer one—smaller, pouting, her hair a great hive around her face—looked over her shoulder and cried out, let go the hem of her dress, lurched forward through the heavy thud of apples. The other girl swung her head around. She was taller, had black eyes, the hard startle of a hawk. Her hair in a thick braid over her shoulder. She grabbed the other girl’s wrist and yanked her along and they went down the empty road like that, panting, one crying, at a hobble-trot. He stopped and watched them go. The boy, at his side, looked wildly back and forth between Talmadge and the ragged duo. I can get them, I can catch them, Talmadge, he said. Wildly back and forth.
Talmadge, the boy repeated.
Talmadge watched the girls retreat.
From THE ORCHARDIST by Amanda Coplin Copyright © 2012 by Amanda Coplin. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.