The Orchardist

This is a book about a majestic orchardist who is just a man, just a man. But his orchard plays music to him, around him, in him. I’m excited to have selected this for my first read this month. In The Orchardist, picking and planting fruit, harvesting fruit, is a metaphor for the harvesting of love, and horror, and violence, and life. Of being human and bequeathing the ordinariness of being human onto the next generation. To be an orchardist is to be the one left behind who must stay alive and go through the motions that kept the prior generation alive. To be an orchardist is to remember those who have been planted, and encourage their roots to life. 

In 1897, William Talmadge’s solitary existence as a middle-aged orchardist in Washington State is colored to life by the appearance of two very pregnant, prepubescent girls (Jane and Della) at his fruits stand in town. When they steal his apples while he sleeps (outraging the townspeople, who shake him awake), he allows them to escape without reclaiming his merchandise. This single act of kindness attracts the hungry girls to his orchard, where over a period of several weeks Talmadge feeds them by leaving food on the porch while they slowly circle his land, watching him, avoiding his glances, never meeting his eye, racing for the food and then ducking his voice when he greets them. 

The terrified children (for they are not nearly old enough to be called "women") ultimately shatter his peaceful world when an act of unimaginable terror cuts the life of one of them into memories. What follows is a slow unrolling of their life stories: of Talmadge’s life before the girls arrived, and what transpired to make him so alone; of the girls' history and how they came to be pregnant so young; of the slow orchard of love, regret, anger, silence, secrets and violence that blooms between them and becomes their home. The whole novel builds toward the final chapter which is exquisite, not because of what happens necessarily, but because it is poetry. I think this whole novel was built to support that final chapter.