So many novels and movies end with whoever needs to be saved, saved. The bad guys are defeated. The challenge accepted and conquered. The ending gives us closure and the hope that everything will be okay, like a more grownup “happily ever after.” Amanda Coplin’s The Orchardist, a moving and melancholy novel, asks what happens if the person in need of saving cannot be saved despite the best efforts of the would-be savior.
Talmadge has lived alone for most of his life. After his mother died and sister disappeared almost forty years before The Orchardist begins, he has tended the family orchard, sold fruit in town, and generally just kept on trucking. He doesn’t seem to want much other than to keep up the orchard and, maybe, finally learn what happened to his sister. Talmadge finally gets a chance to be a hero when two pregnant girls (they’re 14 or thereabouts) arrive in his orchard. They’re extremely skittish, but they eventually accept food and supplies from Talmadge. It takes a long time for Talmadge and his friend from town, Caroline Middey, to figure out even a little of what happened to them.
At first, I was a little confused by the pacing of The Orchardist. I was only a third of the way through when Talmadge and the girls confront and defeat the man who abused them (not without loss). After that first third The Orchardist became a story about what happens after. Della, the surviving girl, is so damaged by her experiences before she met Talmadge that she spends her life searching for something ineffable that can give her peace. Talmadge, while good at caring for trees, is not so good at doctoring human souls. He does his best, but Della eventually leaves the orchard to roam with a band of horse thieves. Our would-be hero is more successful with Della’s newborn niece, Angelene.
As the novel progresses, we see Della fight her demons and Angelene grow up knowing very little about her mother and aunt. We also see Talmadge become more obsessed (albeit quietly) with trying to save Della from herself. It’s heartbreaking to watch him try to cope with Della’s indifference to her fate, ignoring the bright girl he raised as a daughter and his family’s orchard. Della does not want Talmadge’s help, but he can’t just leave her be, not after he failed to rescue his sister all those years ago.
The Orchardist is a brilliant exploration of what happens when someone just won’t be saved. The characters are all fully realized, though Della and Talmadge remain a little opaque because of their inability to actually express what they want. Reading about such characters is an interesting palate cleanser after reading so many stories in which the characters not only know what they want but usually know how they’re going to achieve it. In a sense, The Orchardist reminded me of On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light, a novel that just gutted me when I read it earlier this year. Both novels are about people who struggle without success, not for comedic effect, but to examine more closely what it’s like to fail. Both of these books feel utterly human to me because of this and I love them for it.
Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommend to readers who are trying their best to help someone who is beyond their abilities to assist and either need a bit of perspective or reassurance that it’s okay to forgive oneself for failing.