Amanda Coplin’s somber, majestic debut arrives like an urgent missive from another century. Steeped in the timeless rhythms of agriculture, her story unfolds in spare language as her characters thrash against an existential sense of meaninglessness. Confronted by the stark reminder of mortality, one responds, “It didn’t matter” — a weary comment any of them might have made. Coplin’s saga of a makeshift family unmoored by loss should be depressing, but, instead, her achingly beautiful prose inspires exhilaration. You can only be thrilled by a 31-year-old writer with this depth of understanding.
When two starving, hugely pregnant sisters steal apples from Talmadge’s fruit stand in 1900, they chance upon a man with a void to fill. Talmadge lost his father in a mine collapse when he was 9; his mother died three years later; and his teenage sister vanished from their orchard at the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in 1865. Now in his early 50s, Talmadge still dreams that she “might step out of the trees.” His quiet friendships with a Nez Perce horse wrangler and the herbalist who nursed his dying mother can’t assuage Talmadge’s longing for the sister whom he believes he failed in some mysterious, fundamental fashion.
That sorrow goads him to protect the pregnant sisters, Jane and Della, whose names he learns from a poster advertising a reward for their capture. They have escaped from Michaelson, an opium addict who brutalized the appallingly young girls in his brothel. When Michaelson tracks the sisters to Talmadge’s orchard, the twisted hold he still maintains over Jane provokes her to make a ghastly final escape. Talmadge is left to tend Della and Jane’s baby.
In fewer than 100 pages, Coplin has established the brooding central theme for the rest of her novel: People don’t get over their losses and failures; they try to make up for them in disastrous ways. Della eventually leaves the orchard for an itinerant life of transient jobs, seeking an impossible reconciliation with her sister. Talmadge devotes himself to Jane’s child, Angelene, who grows into a serious, thoughtful teenager as deeply connected to the land as he is. Much as he loves Angelene, “he always kept a part of himself separate, a space for Della to come and fill.”
He can’t let her go, and Della can’t outrun her demon. Why, when Talmadge learns that she’s been thrown in jail, does he insist on trying to rescue a woman who doesn’t want to be rescued? Coplin’s answer is as vast as the Northwestern landscape: Della “fought against the same force against which [Talmadge] fought. Fate, inevitability, luck. God. He would fly in the face of this force now, for her. If she could be freed from it, he would free her.”
But Della won’t be freed from her futile quest for vengeance, and Talmadge’s attempt engulfs everyone he cares for. Life and death, loss and recovery, failure and redemption, Coplin reminds us that these opposites are woven together in the fabric of human experience. Following her haunted protagonists to the ends of their odysseys, she leaves us with Angelene, who has gleaned the only possible response to Talmadge’s despairing conclusion that “surely there was no mercy in the world.” Working alone in the orchard she and Talmadge had nurtured together, immersed in physical labor that extinguishes thought, she feels “a depth of kinship with the earth . . . unshakable, rife with compassion.” Angelene’s final epiphany equals in stark grandeur similar scenes in Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights” and Pat Barker’s “Another World” — heady company for a first novelist, but Coplin’s talent merits such comparisons.
Smith, a contributing editor of the American Scholar, reviews books frequently for The Post, AARP and the Daily Beast.
By Amanda Coplin
Harper. 426 pp. $26.99