My journey with Tracy Chevalier, author of At The Edge of the Orchard, began years ago in book that featured a tapestry of a unicorn (The Lady and the Unicorn). Her current book is worlds away from her first book but if you like trees and following history across the American frontier then here is another sort of tapestry, more realistic and much grimmer, but still somewhat gripping. My favorite Chevalier novel is still Girl with a Pearl Earring and this novel did not displace it.
I acknowledge that all the cruel things people do to each other is upsetting enough when the people are real flesh and blood figures. It seems redundant sometimes to create fiction that captures our inhumanity (or perhaps our too, too human nature) when we can read about it in the news. But still, to create a world with fictional characters and even fictional events that rings true is a true talent and many agree that fiction can immerse us in experiences that are foreign to our own and which help build our capacity for empathy. And while literature that tells us of unpleasant human experiences can seem unrewarding, it can help rid us of the gullibility that partners with being too innocent of life’s trials. Bad things, after all, do happen.
When the Goodenough family decides to leave New England and move west a bad marriage turns into a nightmare. The family puts down their new roots (literally and figuratively) in an inhospitable plot of land in the Black Swamp in Ohio in 1838. James and Sadie Goodenough are a terrible match. He is hard-working and stable, even perhaps a bit dull if you are Sadie who enjoys being admired, likes to party, and is very social. James is obsessed with growing an apple that was brought to America by his family from England, the Golden Pippin. He has carried plants with him from New England to the Black Swamp. But the swamp presents a constant struggle with many indigenous trees to be cleared through massive human labor, too much moisture for growing apples that are good for eating, and a fever that kills.
The Goodenoughs can only keep their land if they have fifty fruit trees growing successfully in five years. They grow the Golden Pippins for eating and they grow other apple trees (spitters) for cider and apple jack. Sadie knows that they don’t have to grow the pippins and she hates how much her husband is obsessed by them. Their children, Caleb, Nathan, Sal, Martha, Robert, and Charles are expected to work as hard as they are able to help make ends meet. The swamp and the grueling labor has already killed two children, Jimmy and Patty. John Coleman (Johnny Appleseed) is almost their only visitor and he brings new apple trees for sale every time he paddles his canoe to the homestead. He also brought Sadie the apple jack, an alcoholic cider to which she, perhaps to tune out this life she is so unsuited for, becomes addicted. James and Sadie have reached a point where they are barely civil and James is so frustrated that he often hits Sadie, who sometimes hits back.
When Sadie and James finally reach the breaking point young Robert is so appalled and feels so guilty that he leaves home at nine and we follow him for the rest of the book as he keeps moving west across America, doing odd jobs and making a living any way he can until he reaches California. Here it seems that Robert finds that he too, like his father is a tree man. He wants to see the redwoods and the sequoias. His interest and the fact that he can’t move any further west leads to his last and most important job. He works for an Englishman, William Lobb who sends seeds and seedlings back to an employer in England to sell to rich estate owners who want to try to grow the giant trees. When his sister Martha catches up with him we finally learn what happened in the aftermath of his parent’s meltdown. This book review of At the Edge of the Orchard finds that this is an odd sort of novel; I think I liked the one with the unicorn better, but I did read the whole thing and it is, of course, well-written. It did make me want to eat a Golden Pippin apple and perhaps hug a sequoia.