Hi, my name is Alan, and I'm drunk with landscape.
I've just finished teaching a writing workshop in how to deploy setting in modern fiction, mainly, the modern novel, so I couldn't easily get the subject off my mind in any case. And now, just as the year has turned, I've caught up with a book that I believe to be the best first novel of 2012, a book called "The Orchardist" by Northwest writer Amanda Coplin, in which the depiction of the land, the setting — the landscape — plays an extremely important role in the drama of the story.
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"The Orchardist" takes place far west of the Rockies. Although landscape painters from the East, such as Hudson River School artists Thomas Cole, Frederic Church and Albert Bierstadt, depicted New York forest and river scenes, the German-born Bierstadt eventually got the notion to cross the continental divide. From the mountains of California he created some of the most magnificent landscape canvases in our culture, such as "Gates of Yosemite" and "Storm in the Mountains," paintings that defined our sense of wonder at Western lands. More Easterners followed along. Bret Harte, a pioneer in writing short fiction about life among the gold miners of the Sierra Nevada, made that same journey, from New York State westward. Chicago-born novelist Frank Norris did, too. He emigrated with his family to California, studied at Berkeley and found himself mesmerized by the land-grabbing railroad magnates and wheat-traders, about whom he would write in his turn-of-the century epics "The Octopus: A Story of California" and "The Pit: A Story of Chicago."
In 1902, the year between the publication of those two landmark Norris novels, the first major native-born California novelist saw the light. John Steinbeck, born in the Salinas Valley in 1902, would, within 30 years, refine the material of California fiction, making it a truly native art, as opposed to the variety of fiction composed by travelers and transplants like Harte and Norris. In his story cycle "The Pastures of Heaven" (1932) and his novel "To a God Unknown" (1933), Steinbeck first tries his hand at integrating local history, the psychology of the characters and the landscape across which they move. In that novel, Steinbeck, in fact, treats the land with a straightforward pantheistic approach, endowing it with a vitality and force we can see radiating from some of Bierstadt's Western landscapes but which no one until the Salinas native had presented in prose fiction.
It's not until the plain-spoken but ultimately glorious celebration of his home grounds in the opening chapters of his 1952 best-seller "East of Eden" that Steinbeck raises the depiction of Western landscape in fiction to the level of the sublime. "I remember my childhood names for grasses and secret flowers," he writes. "I remember where a toad may live and what time the birds awaken in the summer — and what trees and seasons smelled like — how people looked and walked and smelled even. The memory of odors is very rich. … I remember the Gabilan Mountains to the east of the valley were light gay mountains full of sun and loveliness and a kind invitation. … The Santa Lucias stood up against the sky to the west and kept the valley from the open sea, and they were dark and brooding — unfriendly and dangerous. I always found in myself a dread of west and a love of east."
After Steinbeck, a number of wonderfully accomplished California writers, mainly novelists from Wallace Stegner to James D. Houston, set their compasses by their predecessor's sense of direction, looking to the landscape and then deeply into themselves to find an easeful style that includes setting as a major aspect of the character of life in their fiction. That's where the author of "The Orchardist" comes in. Washington-born Oregon resident Coplin seems to be following in this same tradition, telling a story about Western life in that transitional period between the age of the horse and the advent of trains and automobiles.
"The Orchardist" is a story of an ordinary man's simple heroism. Her main character — as the title suggests — an orchard-keeper named William Talmadge, travels north from the Oregon Territory in 1857 at age 9 in the company of his mother and sister. As Coplin puts it, "they came through dense forest, and stood on the rim of a valley illuminated as if it was the end or the beginning of the world." Bierstadt could not have depicted the Western American sublime any better. And Coplin could scarcely have set her standard for illuminating prose any higher.
As the novel opens we read a carefully detailed physical description of Talmadge the orchardist — "tall, broad-shouldered," his face "as pitted as the moon" as he leaves his isolated valley of apple and apricot trees and goes to town to sell fruit. He dozes off, and while he's asleep, two hungry young pregnant female runaways steal some of his wares. Before long he has taken them in, fed them and helped to deliver their children. When a band of armed men arrives at the orchard to take the girls, calamity ensues, and Talmadge's life changes forever.
Justice on the late frontier, the lives of women straining to be free, the fate of children and the place of family all come into play. All of these motifs — and more — grow naturally out of the history and landscape of the late 19th century Northwest. In addition to the pleasure of reading this beautifully conducted story for its own sake, the book brings to mind just how much the effect of reading about the land, the setting, with its lyric pulse, plays a role in the success of a forward moving narrative. As the characters range about their home grounds or travel from place to place on horseback and later by train and automobile, we see them against a background: the valleys and mountains of central Washington with its weather and seasons. Because of the pulsing vitality of the descriptive passages, background becomes foreground.
When you pause and set the book down for a moment or two and gaze out the window, you can see that wherever you are sitting — whether Chicago or New York or elsewhere — may become the vital setting of an Eastern or Midwestern novel with just as much liveliness, sharp description and adventure. Theodore Dreiser taught us this lesson a long time ago when he introduced Chicago as a character in the opening chapters of "Sister Carrie." John Dos Passos did the same for New York City in his innovative 1925 novel "Manhattan Transfer." Chicago comes into even sharper focus in Saul Bellow's "The Adventures of Augie March" and other books. While towns and regions seem more diffuse as settings in the abstract, we can remind ourselves about what Steinbeck did with his California locales and turn also to Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County (based on Lafayette County, Miss.), William Maxwell's small-town Midwest and Richard Ford's Montana — and also his New Jersey. What a wingspan Ford has!
Balzac's Paris and Dickens' London, Tolstoy's Moscow and St. Petersburg, Mahfouz's Cairo: all great cities in great fiction. You can see on a global scale just how carefully intertwined are the fates of individual characters with the places where they live. Is where you are what you are? Yes! Just as much as what you read is what you are. Think of the opening of Steinbeck's marvelous short novel "Cannery Row." The place, he writes, "is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream."
Coplin's wonderful recent novel, with its geography of orchards and illuminated valleys, its forests and mountains, reminded me on just about every page how a writer's deep sense of place — any place — can make for a deep sense of wonder for the reader.
Alan Cheuse, National Public Radio's longtime "voice of books," is the author of five novels, four collections of short fiction and the memoir "Fall Out of Heaven."
By Amanda Coplin, HarperCollins, 448 pages, $26.99Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times