Theresa Weir (pseudonym Anne Frasier) is best known as a mystery, thriller and suspense writer. But in The Orchard (2011) she offers us a remarkably optimistic memoir given the losses she has endured. Her father’s abandonment and her mother’s subsequent choices of unloving men unsettled her early years and later left her vulnerable to a dangerous flirtation with drugs. Theresa, employed by an unfortunate uncle less interested in her than his business and knowing little of love except for her paternal grandmother, married too quickly at twenty-one. She and her young husband Adrian managed as best they could, however, on the basis of a common interest in representing their world creatively—he through his drawing and she through her writing.
Their world was an American heartland apple farm, firmly established and staunchly respectable by the standards of Theresa’s wayward beginnings. But Adrian was even more trapped in the conventions of his world than she was in the unconventionality of hers. Though he loved the farm he had been raised to inherit and knew its workings intimately, he could not assert himself against the ferocious control of a mother determined to keep him slavishly dependent, financially and otherwise, on her.
By her own account Weir set out to make her husband’s apple farm and the family that ran it representative of every American farm and every American family, indeed of American institutions generally in the later twentieth century. What makes her “parable” work so well, I believe, is her ability to blend criticism of those who ran the farm with compassion for them. Naturally they wanted to keep their business prospering even if that meant storing and spraying the very herbicides and pesticides that could one day ruin it. Like a landlord more intent on extracting profit from his property than on maintaining it, or like an America negligent of its infrastructure, the family that owns the apple farm does not love it or each other enough to care for the entire enterprise tenderly.
I was drawn to this memoir primarily by Theresa Weir’s constant focus on the farm, a place that stayed in her heart long after she had to leave it. I began my own memoir, Unsuitable Treasure: AnEx-Jesuit Makes Peace with the Past, with a family business probably less chemically endangered than hers but just as insufficiently attentive to its own future. Its financial policies used up my father far more than they supported him, and that fact embittered my mother. Still, that very business gave my parents the resources to send me to a high school run by Jesuits who taught me to think and to write, who gave me a spirituality that outlasted my decision to leave them, and who provided me with an academic career on one of their twenty-eight American university campuses. The Orchard successfully represents the extent to which even the unconcern and negligence in our backgrounds can benefit the lives we fashion for ourselves.