Erin McCabe reviews Amanda Coplin’s new historical fiction novel, in which horses play a surprisingly prominent role.
One of the reasons historical fiction is a favorite genre of mine is probably because the likelihood of running into horses is far greater. Even so, I am often surprised when a novel I thought was about something else turns out to feature horses. Case in point: The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin.
The Orchardist in the title, Talmadge, comes to Washington as a child pioneer, settling with his mother and sister in a remote valley. The family cultivates an orchard, until the mother dies (quite early on), and then one day, his sister just up and vanishes without a trace. What happened to her is anybody’s guess, and despite desperate searching, Talmadge never finds hide nor hair of her. Talmadge’s only company is the local midwife who helped nurse his mother when she took sick, and– Enter horses!– the band of Nez Perce horse traders who visit the orchard every year on their way to take their wild-ish horses to auction.
After years of living mostly alone and grieving for his disappeared sister, two young pregnant girls show up in Talmadge’s orchard. Given his past, it’s not too surprising that he tries to take them under his wing, leaving them plates of food at the trees’ edge, putting out blankets for them, and basically trying to tame them–much the way one tries to tame a feral barn cat. It sort of works, but the sordid past the girls have escaped from eventually catches up with them. What happens then is shocking (at least, it was to me). But, like all good writing, once it happens, it seems inevitable.
In the aftermath, Della, one of the girls, finds some measure of solace in, you guessed it, horses. She learns to ride from Clee, a mute Nez Perce horse trader. I’m still trying to figure out how one learns to ride without being told a hundred million times to get one’s heels down, but somehow the two manage it and Della becomes a good rider. She eventually starts training some of the wild horses the group brings to the valley.When she decides she wants to ride off with the Nez Perce and help them sell the horses and capture more, Talmage at first says no, but he eventually relents–a decision he at turns regrets and believes is the only way for Della to find any measure of happiness. Once she rides off, it could be a moment to really explore Della’s connection to horses, an opportunity to learn more about the Nez Perce, their training methods, and how they survived during this time–but we really only get glimpses of these things. One problem is that, for Della, the horses seem to be more of a means to an end–a way she tries to assuage her guilt and channel her mourning, a way that she can “transform herself from someone powerless to someone powerful” rather than a way she can build a trusting, meaningful relationship with another creature.
The descriptions of the horses, especially Della’s dreams of them and the account of her first ride on an untamed horse, are almost impressionistic–lovely but somehow indistinct and distant. And some of the ways in which horses are described just didn’t ring true for me–using the word “snout” for muzzle, for instance. Or, a horse described as nipping other horses’ ears to get them to move out of the way–I’ve just never seen that. I read an interview with the author where she talked about her writing process and how she studied pictures of tack and information about the Nez Perce. So while I commend her for doing her research, it seemed evident to me from the writing that the author is not a HorseGirl.
All complaining aside, the story is still a fascinating one about regret and heartbreak and grief. It’s beautifully written. Amanda Coplin’s writing is the kind that you’re supposed to luxuriate in–it’s poetic, her observations are surprising, it’s melancholy and juicy while sometimes still being spare–it’s writing that has garnered quite a lot of praise (and prizes). At the same time, Coplin trusts the reader, giving space to fill in the blanks, especially regarding moments or events that could be pretty lurid or salacious. And there are lots of blanks to fill in. This sometimes makes the pacing seem a bit slow, a feeling that is added to by the way the narrative shifts from character to character. Despite the luxurious prose, the chapters are short, and so reader doesn’t always get a chance to really sit with the moment or get swept away by the story because Coplin just gives us a brief scene and then moves on–constantly making transitions may be good for your horse, but in a novel it can feel a bit choppy. Still, I cared about the characters (and the orchard!) and what happened to them. If you like more literary historical fiction with strong female characters, this book will fill the bill. And if you can forget I told you about the horse stuff, you can let it be a mostly pleasant surprise, and enjoy it for what it is.