The Orchardist (2012) by Amanda Coplin is a haunting novel based on an (you guessed it!) orchard near the turn of the 20th century. It is a book, on the surface about self-sufficiency, survival, and family — a book about a less-than-sparkly version of the American Dream.
But beyond that, it is a story about mistakes and freedom and how, as one character phrases it, we don’t live for ourselves alone.
It is this last point, that I think, ties the book together. We see a make-shift family form and fall apart and form again, differently. We see that freedom comes with sacrifice — there is a hanging, there is loneliness, there is the particular social isolation that comes from introverts living away from town, there is a disappearance whose mystery is never solved, there is the attempt to save someone who doesn’t want to be saved.
Within all of that, we see people committing to each other, committing to lives together — and lives apart. We see the way people, and our past, can haunt us. We see ways to change, in the present, what we wish we’d done differently in the past.
Part of what is wonderful about this book is that she includes several strong, independent female characters and Coplin doesn’t spend much time belaboring why they are so independent. Like male characters throughout fiction, it’s just assumed that these female characters are independent because they can be. Because they can be.
Coplin’s writing is beautiful and believable. She describes the changing landscape of the West: the way an orchard changes with the seasons and spreads, the impact of a railroad, the seasonal changes of the Sawtooths, the way a small Western town would grow in face of migrant labor and trains and eventually cars.
This book begins slowly and quietly, and to be honest, at first I wondered what I was getting into (or if I should continue it). It’s worth the weight while Coplin builds the scene and the characters. At some point, I realized that I didn’t want to put the book down. I was mesmerized.