Broad in its scope, tragic in its reality and profound in its human perspective, Coplin’s novel bridges the19th and 20th centuries in a valley of orchard groves in the Pacific Northwest tended by the solitary William Talmadge. Arriving in 1857 with his mother and sister, Elsbeth, his mother’s death and Elsbeth’s inexplicable disappearance leave Talmadge to work the land alone, expanding acreage and groves as he is able. This solitary existence is punctuated only by visits to town to sell his wares and an enduring friendship with herbalist/midwife Caroline Midday.
When two runaway teems, both noticeably pregnant, steal from his cart in town and later appear at his orchard, Talmadge continues about his business, providing for them without intrusion or fanfare, fearful of frightening the girls away. Though neither Jane nor Della warms to the quiet stranger—fleeing from an abusive man and a stable of other helpless females held captive—they are desperate for security, food and shelter, gradually tolerating the taciturn man who so generously provides for their needs. As the time for the birth of the children nears, it becomes necessary to engage the assistance of Caroline Midday, who brings experience and calmness to a chaotic scene. Awkward and uncomfortable, Talmadge delivers Jane’s baby daughter out of necessity, though Della’s twins do not survive.
Coplin’s prose is inspiring as she describes a lonely man, at one with the land but so helpless to navigate humanity: “In certain seasons, in certain shades, memories alighted on him like sharp-taloned birds.” As rumors penetrate the orchard of a man’s search for two girls, Talmadge, unaccustomed to confrontation or violence, is ill-prepared for a day of reckoning when a monster appears wielding a gun, demanding the return of his property. While Talmadge’s gentle nature creates a sympathetic protagonist, his lack of aggression fails to protect the runaways from tragedy. His own worst critic, Talmadge suffers his failures in silence, providing the bounty of his hearth as best he can, a solitary man suddenly surrounded by females and an infant who unexpectedly nestles near his heart. The life that has come to this orchard and this individual, with its challenges, obstacles and opportunities, forms the heart of this novel. Human nature struggles to find expression amid nature’s cycles, order infused with the complex demands of unfamiliar emotions.
Talmadge’s commitment to non-interference creates dramatic impact, direction neither given nor taken—what right has he to make demands? Yet there are mutual claims among the characters, albeit implied, more abstract than the norm, a coexistence of individuals who remain irrevocably tethered to one another, like it or not. In this place during these years, a multigenerational drama plays out, one without familial ties but valid nonetheless, with Talmadge at the center. There is much suffering for the lack of commitment, an absence of emotional harmony that might have brought a measure of peace to even Bella’s willful wanderings. These people and the intensity of their lives are absorbed by time, the land resonating with the memory of hope, violence, regret and love, precious in its elusiveness.