Riding in the herd, the sound like one constant, endless sigh; some horses frantic and others calm, some remembering some wrong done to them while others wanted only to sleep, and each struggling with hunger and thirst; some horses pregnant, others desperate to copulate; and all moved forward as one body amid the heat and the dust. The men and Della spaced out and caught among among them like ornaments in a blanket; like disparate thoughts fretting to cohere. The feeling that this would never end, being caught in the herd, heading east or north, west or south, moving for some purpose though that purpose was for the moment lost; the horses – the herd- carried the men at times more than the men guided them. The men were bound by time – they must reach the auction that evening, or the next day – and yet the riding among the horses through the landscape was endless and timeless, distanceless. It made some men – not the ones who were riding, but others, who lived elsewhere, employed in different occupations – desperate; it made Della sink down under the pressing weight of all that time, all that distance – for it was not deficit but surplus experienced between two destinations – and though she felt at times she could not move, because of the pressing weight, she also felt placed. Ensconced. Safe.
The Orchardist is the kind of historical, lyrical novel that is appealing to me at the moment. It is a book that is executed beautifully, with lovely language that reflects the chaos of the horse herds and the quiet of the orchards in the same book. Talmadge, who lives alone at the apple and apricot orchard until sisters Della and Jane upend his life and leave him with a child, Angelene, is a quiet, stoic man, upended by the mysterious disappearance of his sister when they were teenagers. Later he is driven to do unthinkable things in the name of saving Della and leaving Angelene with something of a family, but most of the novel is spent in quiet contemplation of what to do with the life you are given.
Della, still damaged from her life before she escaped the unthinkable with Jane, leaves Angelene and Talmadge after Jane’s death, unable to cope with a life without movement. She travels from one job to the next, trying to blend into the world of men, trying to prove herself to be as strong, physical, daring as a man. Talmadge waits for her return, desperate for Della to want the life of the orchardist, bound by the seasons and by ties to the land and blood relations. Angelene, though, has written Della off, she is a memory. Angelene can’t understand why Talmadge would want to bother with Della and bringing her back, Talmadge can’t understand why Angelene wouldn’t want Della back in her life.
As much as I liked the majority of this novel, when the drama finally comes to a head and Talmadge attempts to rescue Della from the life she has chosen, I felt weary by the story and by Talmadge. He is blind to the women around him, only thinking instead of the women who have left him. I guess no novel can sit quietly in the happy parts of the story and I can’t help but wonder if this complaint reflects my current state of mind more than an actual technical weakness in the story, but I just wanted Talmadge to recognize what he had in the orchard. I wanted Della to be able to live the life she wanted without another man interfering. I wanted happiness for them both. But that doesn’t necessarily make a good story.