Bittersweet apples

A review of The Orchard by Theresa Weir

I've enjoyed just about every novel Theresa Weir has written (both as herself and as Anne Frasier) so I was curious to read her memoir of life on an Iowa apple farm. That I liked the book isn't a shocker. And the fact that the book is darker in tone then the cover suggests was also to be expected considering the kind of writing she's always done. What did surprise me was how deeply I felt what she wrote about her life and how it has stuck with me since I finished. This spare and matter-of-fact re-telling of a sometimes dark, often difficult period in her life is also a bittersweet love story that strikes an entirely true note.

At the age of twenty-one Theresa was working in her uncle's bar in Iowa farm country along the Mississippi. When Adrian Curtis walks into the bar the attraction is instant and almost miraculous to a young woman whose life had been hard and chaotic. Adrian quickly becomes her focus and she his. Though Theresa is warned away by her uncle, she quickly marries this young farmer she barely knows. Before she has time to process her choice she finds herself living in the small house set aside for the farm workers on the Curtis property. Her new husband is barely present and she can't quite figure out why he married her. Was it a form of rebellion against his controlling parents? Did he see in her some of the freedom he'd never have as the son destined to run an apple orchard that's been in the family for five generations? Does he love her? Theresa doesn't know. As she builds a life with Adrian he remains an enigma. Through all the trials and tribulations, the ups and downs - the moths who could kill off the orchard, the in-laws who despise her, the birth of her children - the one constant is the farm. Adrian tells her early on in their marriage that the farm comes first and that fact never changes.

Ms. Weir reveals some deeply painful moments in her life as she moves back and forth between her peripatetic childhood and her married life, but she doesn't dwell in them. Yes there is pain but there is also self-discovery and growth and underlying it all is the love she comes to feel for Adrian. And the truths she lays bare about the life of a farm and the farmers who work it are both simple and, dare I say it, profound.

"People who've never lived on a farm romanticize farm life. But people who grew up on a farm and perhaps still live on a farm romanticize it more. They guard it and protect it and pretend it's more than it is."

and

"Every day farmers got out of bed because animals were waiting to be fed. No matter how brutal the weather, no matter if it was a weekend or Christmas or twenty below zero...It made old men out of boys, and eldest sons worked for pennies a day with the promise that the very thing that had made them old before their time, the very thing that had killed their fathers and their grandfathers, would one day be theirs."

As someone who grew up amongst dairy farmers, I know how true these statements are. There is no end to the work but there is no end to the devotion either. Clearly this is something Ms. Weir learned as well.

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