Talmadge is a man with a sad history. When he was still a boy in 1857, his father died in a mining town in Oregon. He and his mother and sister then walked all the way along the Columbia River to Wenatchee, Washington. They created an orchard from the start of two diseased apple trees.
Talmadge’s mother died in 1860, when he was 12, and after that, he and his sister Elsbeth were everything to each other. But then when he was 17, his sister went into the forest to gather herbs and was never seen again. Talmadge searched for her for years.
At the opening of the novel, Talmadge is in his 40’s. He has lived his subsequent life alone, working his orchard. He has friends, particularly Caroline Middey, an herbalist, and Clee, a Nez Perce horse trader whom Talmadge and Elsbeth were friends with since they were children. Every year, he and his men stop by with their horses to work the harvest.
One day in town, Talmadge spots two wild young girls who appear to be homeless. Although barely in their teens, they are both pregnant. They find their way to the valley where Talmadge has his orchard, and he leaves food out for them. Although he tries to make a shelter for them, they stay outside. The girls are named Jane and Della.
Talmadge hears someone is offering a reward for the girls. He does not intend to turn them in but travels to see what type of person this Michaelson is. He finds Michaelson runs a brothel for young girls and is an erratic opium smoker.
Michaelson eventually finds the girls, just after they have their babies. The result is disaster. Della has lost twins in childbirth, but the resulting tragedy leaves Jane dead and Jane’s child Angelene alone with Talmadge and Della.
The rest of the novel is driven by Talmadge’s sense that it is his duty to keep Della and Angelene safe. But Della is a wild girl whose actions are controlled by her unrecognized grief. She learns how to ride and finally goes off to work with Clee and his men. But she proves too unruly for them.
This novel is deeply interesting and beautifully written. It is also incredibly sad. It is about the loneliness of the human condition, about our ties to one another, about responsibilities to other people.