Coplin’s writing is flat and direct, mostly free of affect, and is well suited to the time, place and main character of this novel: an apple grower in rural turn of the 20th century central Washington.
The novel begins with the life of William Talmadge: his parents were both dead by the time he was 12 years old, leaving him and his sister orphaned. He took care of the family orchard and raised his sister, until the day she disappeared. She was never found, and her disappearance haunted Talmadge his entire life. He eventually recovered himself enough to dedicate his life to the orchard, and led a quiet and mostly uneventful life, until the day that two young girls stole a bag of apples from his market stand.
The girls eventually find their way to Talmadge’s farm, where they sleep in the woods and venture near his cabin when he is out. He begins to feed them, by leaving plates of food on his porch, and in time the girls begin to understand that he won’t harm them. They have good reason to be afraid: they had escaped from a brothel where girls as young as nine were prostituted and tortured. The girls, Jane and Della, had been on the run for some time before their first encounter with Talmadge, and were in constant fear of being captured. And both girls were pregnant.
Talmadge eventually learns some of their history, and sets out to confront their captor, a man named Michaelson. But when he arrives at the brothel he is unsure what to do; he is irresolute, as he will be at other critical points in this story.
The bulk of the novel deals with the results of the girls’ captivity and Talmadge’s attempts to help them. We see that Talmadge is driven, in part, by his unending grief and confusion over the disappearance of his sister, going so far as to inadvertently refer to Della as his sister when buying something for her. But by the end it seems that he thinks of the girls as part of his family in their own right.
The structure of the novel falls apart a bit in the middle: Coplin switches from sustained narrative and dialogue to short intercut snippets. But she returns to good linear story telling in the final 100 pages, and brings the novel to a satisfactory, though sad, end.
A constant theme in this novel is resoluteness. The girl Jane is as resolute as any character in fiction: she decides on a course of action, she plans for contingencies, and when the time comes she acts without hesitation. Talmadge, by contrast, is mostly irresolute, constantly wondering what is the right thing to do; and his one foray into resolute action ends in disaster. Fianlly, Della’s one attempt at being resolute fails almost immediately: she hesitates, she fails, and only later understands that succeeding would not have been what she hoped.
I suspect this will be Coplin’s only significant novel, but it is a good one and well worth reading.