(Reviewed by Mary Whipple SEP 7, 2003)
"Weaver [the artist] professed not to believe in inspiration yet occasionally an idea for something new came to him in such a way that it seemed it could only have issued from the gods. When this happened, subject, setting, medium, perspective, and tone all came together at once "
Like the artist he describes, author Larry Watson himself may have been inspired. His characters, setting, story, point of view, and tone combine in a unity of purpose that sheds a bright, new light on some of man's oldest themes. In simple, spare language he depicts the lives of two couples, very different from each other, each trying to fulfill dreams and cope with the silences and miscommunications which arise in their marriages, then brings the two couples together to make connections with each other. Unpretentious and as connected to the earth as the orchardist who is one of the main characters, the novel weaves the intimate details of their everyday lives in rural Door County, Wisconsin, into a powerful and riveting domestic tragedy.
Henry House is the orchardist, laboriously tending his apple trees and harvesting his crop, a hard-working man living close to the earth. He and his wife Sonja have been devastated by the death of their four-year-old son from a blow to the head. Consumed by grief, they are unable to reach out to each other in their need, each reliving the trauma separately. Ned Weaver, their neighbor, is a talented and respected artist, with a reputation for womanizing, and all his models are assumed by the townsfolk to have been his mistresses. His wife Harriet, who loves him in spite of his betrayals, has found some satisfaction in the role of caretaker of his creative flame.
Watson tells his story of these four people and their interactions obliquely, moving back and forth in time, building the drama and tension to a high pitch as the reader is presented with scenes of danger and violence which sometimes have no context. We do not know, at first, who the characters are, and we have no way of knowing why they are behaving the way they do, and it is not until late in the novel that some of these mysterious actions are explained. As the novel opens, for example, Henry House is sneaking through his orchard in the dark, trying to avoid stepping on rotten apples covered by the newly fallen snow as he creeps up on a cabin, unseen. In his pocket he carries a pistol. Immediately after this dramatic scene is a sharply contrasting scene of artist Ned Weaver contemplating his new model whose "talent for stillness" is extraordinary, so much so that Ned devises more and more difficult poses in an effort to force her to ask for relief and "at last reveal the [inner] secret of her." We do not know who she is or why she is modeling. In the third scene, involving yet another emotional contrast, Sonja House grabs a rifle and goes to the barn, intent on shooting Henry's horse, Buck.
Contemplating how these scenes are connected immediately involves the reader in the narrative, an involvement which never lets up as the story becomes more personal and more psychologically intense. We soon discover that it is Sonja who is posing for Ned Weaver, but her reasons for doing this and her behavior toward the artist are different from those of any of his previous models. As a result, Weaver finds himself inspired to new heights in his art and regards Sonja as a true muse--until one of the local townspeople looks through a window, sees her posing, and informs the unsuspecting Henry, who is humiliated. Their tenuous emotional balance now threatened, Henry and Sonja, Ned and Harriet find themselves engulfed by forces beyond their control, forces they must battle until they gain inner knowledge through their suffering.
Watson is an exceptionally "clean," no-frills writer, one whose images are crystal clear and presented in plain, unambiguous terms. Keenly descriptive without being flowery, he imbues simple, country scenes with intense emotion and thematic significance. In one of the most unusual scenes in modern fiction, Ned, sun-burned and peeling from an afternoon of painting along the lake a few days before, calls Harriet into the bathroom to peel the loose skin from his back, a scene laden with far more significance than the simple need to scratch an itch. Revealing new aspects of their relationship, it also raises questions about the importance of art in life. In another unusual twist, Weaver meets with the husband of one of his former model-mistresses in a scene which revolves around the subject of baked potatoes.
Layer upon layer of meaning accumulates in homely details which advance the themes. Henry is the owner of an apple orchard, and the ironic comparison of Door County with the Garden of Eden is inescapable. The seasons carry symbolic weight, and fire and ice play a role in the plot. Like a Greek tragedy, the drama plays itself out with inevitability until a turning point is reached and there can be no going back, yet the novel wears its importance lightly and presents its story without pretensions. Themes of love and betrayal, freedom and control, suffering and redemption, innocence and guilt-all universal themes from the beginning of human history-are seen through the prism of an artist's life and his desire to leave a lasting legacy. With all its down-home details, Watson's novel carries the power and resonance of the very best of dramatic fiction.
- Amazon readers rating: from 34 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Orchard at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- In a Dark Time (1980)
- Montana 1948 (1993)
- Justice (1996)*
- White Crosses (1997)
- Laura (1999)
- Orchard (2003)
- Sundown, Yellow Moon (2007)
- American Boy (2011)
- Let Him Go (September 2013)
*Justice is a prequel to Montana 1948
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About the Author:
Larry Watson was born in Rugby, North Dakota. His father, and his grandfather before him, was the sheriff of this small town in northeastern North Dakota. When he was five years old, the family moved to Bismarck, North Dakota.
After junior college, during which he married his high school sweetheart, he entered the University of North Dakota. He enrolled in a writing class and began writing poems. With faculty encouragement, he abandoned pre-law and decided on teaching as a career. He wrote stories for his M.A., then moved to the University of Utah to pursue the flexible Ph.D. program in creative writing. For his thesis at the University of Utah, he wrote In a Dark Time. After leaving the University of Utah, Watson taught at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point.
His novel Montana 1948, won the Milkweed Fiction Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, the Mountain and Plains Booksellers Association Regional Award, and many other literary prizes. He has published short stories and poems in literary journals, quarterlies and anthologies. His essays and book reviews have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and other periodicals.
Watson taught at UW-Stevens for twenty-five years and recently retired as professor of English. He will now be a visiting professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee, where he will teach creative writing and other upper-level courses, which will provide him with a lighter load and more time for writing. Watson and his wife, Susan, live in Plover, Wisconsin. They have two adult daughters.