They were two girls dressed in raggedy clothes, standing beneath the awning of the hardware store. Their faces were dirty, their hair tangled, their bodies distended. They were pregnant. Both of them.
William Talmadge had driven his wagon filled with apples and apricots to town that Sunday morning. He set up his fruit stand outside the feed store. It was a quiet morning. He dozed. The girls, their bellies swollen grotesquely, approached, grabbed what they could, and ran.
A boy offered to go after them. You give me a nickel and I’ll run them down, get your apples back for you, he said. Talmadge watched the girls retreat.
Three days later they show up in his orchard, and thus begins a tale of violence and abuse, revenge and forgiveness, tragedy and love.
William Talmadge is a man who is at peace with himself when he is in his orchard, caring for his apple, apricot, and plum trees. Yet the loss of his family when he was young is never far from his mind. He was 12-years-old when his mother died. Five years later his sister Elsbeth walked into the woods and disappeared, leaving only her bonnet and her picking basket. Now, out of these same woods, comes two bedraggled girls. They are as broken as any human could possibly be, alienated from society, fearful of all humans.
He prepares food for them, and they are like ravenous animals. In time, his quiet acceptance of them, his tending to their needs, his protective stance when they are threatened, brings them close to him. They begin to trust him, as much as they can anyone.
The story takes wildly unexpected turns, yet is wholly believable throughout. Coplin’s descriptions of this quiet man who has suffered such great losses, the Indians who bring horses into the valley in the spring, the two girls, the mountains, and the valleys takes the reader back to the days when Washington state was first settled. It’s a fascinating journey, one that reverberates in its portrayal of human suffering, obsession, sexual violence, and tragedy.
Some things are so broken they can never be repaired. This is the lesson Talmadge ultimately learns, a lesson as true today as it was a hundred years ago.
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