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Fiction Literary

Orchard Keepers, The

by (author) Robert Pepper-Smith

NeWest Press
Initial publish date
Apr 2017
Literary, Cultural Heritage, Family Life
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Apr 2017
    List Price

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Robert Pepper-Smith's trilogy of novels chronicling the lives of those with deep roots in the orchard lands of British Columbia comes full circle with this volume, collecting newly revised editions of The Wheel Keeper and House of Spells with Sanctuary.

The Wheel Keeper introduced readers to Michael Guzzo, raised in one of the many immigrant families who flocked to the vineyards and orchards of the Kootenays. When the government plans to flood his village for a hydroelectric project, young Michael seeks escape with his rebellious cousin Maren, who is experiencing her own story of displacement.

In House of Spells, Rose and Lacey are two teenagers from the region who share a vital connection to Michael. When Rose becomes pregnant, the wealthy Mr Giacomo offers to raise the child, but can this mysterious benefactor be trusted? Or is there something sinister going on behind the local entrepreneur's offer?

Finally, in the never-before-published Sanctuary, the stories of Michael, Rose and Lacey merge after Lacey goes in search of Michael in Central America. These two seekers, estranged from their homeland, must face down the forces of industry and politics that threaten their life-sustaining connections to land, identity and memory.

About the author

Robert Pepper-Smith was born in Revelstoke, BC. He currently lives on a farm in the Cinnabar valley with his wife Anna and teaches philosophy at Vancouver Island University. His childhood in Revelstoke and his experience as a volunteer paramedic with the NGO Alianza in Guatemala have inspired this work. The Wheel Keeper (2002) was his first full-length work of fiction. In September 2011, NeWest released Robert's second novella, House of Spells. The Orchard Keepers, a collection of these two books with a third, Sanctuary, which finishes the series, was released in Spring 2017.

Robert Pepper-Smith's profile page


  • Nominated, Best Book Cover Design at the Alberta Book Publishing Awards

Excerpt: Orchard Keepers, The (by (author) Robert Pepper-Smith)

Excerpt from The Wheel Keeper

In our family a story is told of a child who went through the wheel of Roca D'Avola and was returned into the arms of her mother.

Many infants who went through the wheels of southern Italy died within a year.

So it was remarkable that Manice lived.

And only because of the help of the wheel keeper -- a Scottish slater of eighteen, my grandfather.

Children vanish. They vanish through doors, under stairs, in the branches of apricot trees. They can be seen on the railroad bridge, on a catwalk of wooden planks, the river far below.

In a dream I have my mother rises from her bed, floats away. I grip her by the ankle to pull her down. In another dream my father is absorbed into the alcove wall of our apartment on the street of the grandmothers. The wall takes him in like water.

The night my cousin Anna -- ill with appendicitis -- was brought by ferry across the river, I was standing on nostra nonna's porch roof. Anna was my aunt Manice's daughter. I'd parted our kitchen curtains to climb out. I could smell smoke from across the river. Less used, the doors. You take a heap of stone and planks, you put it together and you have a house.

What is a house that goes as far as a breath?

It's for human beings to live in, Anna.

Excerpt from House of Spells

I get paid to watch mountains and forests. From the fire lookout on Palliser Mountain I've memorized the peaks, the avalanche tracks, the bends in the river below, the logging roads and cut lines. When anything looks different I see it.

The tower cabin is a standard one-room with a seven-foot ceiling and four walls of four-foot-tall windows, no curtains, the chrome-legged kitchen table and chairs under the east window. My bed is under the south window and my books line the north sill. In the west corner, a sink and a small counter with a bar fridge under it, run on propane. Only the fire finder, a circular table with a topographical map and two sighting apertures, stands above the sills.

I go outside to place my pots of basil on the catwalk banister, watch clouds build over the eastern ridge, beyond the outhouse and the patch of grass the Forest Service calls a garden. Below I can see three horses at the foot of the mountain, a grey and two buckskins, the ones Mr. Giacomo lost earlier this summer.

Sometimes in that morning light an avalanche track can look like a column of smoke. Golden conifer pollen drifts over the Slocan gorge, wisps of river fog rise off the hidden bend of the Palliser. Low clouds blow up over the eastern ridge like water flowing uphill.

Now that I'm alone, memories float in and out of my mind. I've assisted my mother at two births, one in the spring of 1969, the other this year. Mrs. Giacomo's was the first birth. Her son was born blue, couldn't be made to breathe. While my mother tried for a long time, her mouth over the baby's nose and mouth, I held Mrs. Giacomo's cold hand and she turned to the wall.

I remember the baby's puckered, bruised eyes, glued shut with a sticky film and its limp, tiny hands. Finally Mrs. Giacomo reached for her child, to take it out of my mother's arms. She could see there was no hope. She took it under the blankets next to her chest and then she drew the blanket over her head.

Even though I was only sixteen years old, I couldn't leave her there alone. I crawled under the blanket to rest my head against her shoulder, and my arms around her felt so weak and useless. She felt like she was covered in ashes. Over her shoulder I could see the face of the still one in her arms. His tiny brow looked puzzled at not entering the living world. His limp hands were delicate, hollow-boned and the skin at his temples pale blue.

Later Mrs. Giacomo would blame my mother for the child 's death. She would say that my mother had not done enough. That was the end of a long friendship.

Then this year Rose's child was born; I was there too.

My name is Lacey Wells and I've got a lot to tell you. I know who the father of Rose's baby is. His name is Michael Guzzo. He left last winter before Rose knew she was pregnant, when the Odin Mill shut down because of the snows. He left to travel in Central America.

I know why Mr. Giacomo wants Rose's baby and why he can't have him. And I want to make sure none of this is forgotten.

Excerpt from Sanctuary

Chiapas, Mexico 198_


For two years he had almost no news from home. Once he heard that Canadians were planning a gold mine in his Department, and he hoped that the Canadian mine would bring his village some measure of prosperity.

He hung out in the streets of zone 18. Because there really wasn't a lot to do most of the time, he learned to play marimba. He was particularly good at the music of his highland mountains that he'd heard since childhood, and was often called on to take a place beside others at the marimba. Soon he found he loved playing marimba more than the money and prestige that came with being a member of Barrio 16. His dream was to return to San Miguel, to play during the festival there. One morning he got up early, the gang members all lived in a house in the 18th district, quietly gathered his things and left, caught the bus to Huehue. From that city he caught another, regional bus to El Tablon, the village of his birth where his mother lived on her small plot of land.

His mother was overjoyed to see him. She led him into the house to cook some kale and beans for him. She looked much better than he remembered her from two years ago. There was new light in her eyes and she had put on weight. The house was surrounded by tall corn, a healthy green that he'd never seen in the family crops before and her little garden of medicinal plants was flourishing.

He asked about his younger brother Carlos. It turned out that, a year earlier, he'd attended a demonstration against the Canadian mine in their Department.

In order to accommodate the mine's need for land, many people were forced to leave their small farms.

Carlos had received a warning that he had been photographed at the demonstration and that it would be best if he left the country.

He'd gone to Los Estados. He was established in Florida and was sending home money regularly.

Because his mother was alone, Bernabe decided to stay on to help with the crops. The festival in San Miguel was a few months away. Besides, he remembered how his father had loved his milpa, how every year he'd give each plant careful attention, and he wanted to know what it felt like, to really care from day to day for the crops you grew. Besides, he was ashamed at abandoning his mother in her grief and wanted to show her that he was worthy of her love and forgiveness.

He was not prepared for the hard work.

He'd grown soft in the Capital during the many idle hours and days of gang life and his hands soon blistered wielding the azadon. His family didn't have the best soil and his azadon would often strike stone, blunting the blade. Soon he was frustrated and angry. One morning he threw down the hoe and his mother, who was working ahead, looked up at him out of her mild, kind eyes. He'd quickly recalled something of the technique of hoeing from his childhood, but his uncalloused hands resisted what they were once capable of. He realized that even a humble task like hoeing takes patience, a lifetime of patience, and he was hoping to impress her with his willing usefulness.

No land welcomes you right away, she said to him then, smiling. The soil takes its own time to trust you, and it's a long time. She picked up the hoe that he'd tossed, carefully brushing the handle and then she handed it back to him.

Editorial Reviews

Praise for The Orchard Keepers:
"With considerable skill and sensitivity, Robert Pepper-Smith reveals something both tragic and magical in his story of three friends whose childhood village and its essential orchards are flooded by an ambitious government, driving the population out of their homes and into the dangers and uncertainties of a larger world. In exploring the survivors' fates he has given us a wonderfully original, ambitious, and engaging novel."
~ Jack Hodgins, author of Cadillac Cathedral and The Resurrection of Joseph Bourne
"The Orchard Keepers is a novel of fierce, quiet resistance. Against a backdrop of the flooding of Columbia River valleys for hydroelectric dams in the 1950s and the displacement of Guatemalan farmers by foreign mining interests in the 1970s, the lives of the characters incandesce, defying despotism in all its forms. Staunch, independent, unique, they bear witness to the real power of human connection, patiently transmitting language, memory, and nurture."
~ Karen Hofmann, author of What is Going to Happen Next and Echolocation
"A quietly but powerfully political book about uprootedness and connection to the land."
~ Jade Colbert, The Globe and Mail

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