Review published on June 3, 2016.
Trees and family ties are linking themes in Chevalier’s latest work of historical fiction.
Spanning 1838 to 1856 and reaching from Ohio to the California coast, this is the story of the Goodenough family. James and Sadie Goodenough left the East Coast to settle in Ohio’s formidable Black Swamp, where they have been trying to nurse a set of apple trees into life. In that same time, ironically, they have buried many of their children. In these early chapters, third-person omniscient narration alternates with sections giving Sadie’s first-person voice. Chevalier indicates Sadie’s rough speech through dropped G’s and an absence of apostrophes, which can be confusing but is a good approximation of unschooled English. As an example, here is how she describes their life on the frontier: “We werent living with the land, but alive despite it. Cause it wanted to kill us every chance it got, either the skeeters or the fever or the mud or the damp or the heat or the cold.”
It’s not a happy life, and not just because of the difficulty of raising healthy trees or children. Sadie and James are always at each other’s throats, and she is too fond of hard cider and applejack. James brings an artist’s devotion to the work of cultivating Golden Pippins – eating apples said to have the flavour of pineapples – while all Sadie wants is for James to grow more “spitters” she can ferment into alcohol. It’s an uncomfortable atmosphere for the siblings to grow up in, and as soon as eldest son Robert gets the chance to leave he eagerly heads west. Over the years, which we learn about through half-literate letters, he writes home at a usual rate of one per year, he tries his hand at dodgy medicine sales and gold mining before settling to work he’s well suited for: collecting redwood and sequoia seeds in California, a place “where you get to start over.” The giant trees “made me feel small, but it was the best feeling I ever had, better than church or a good meal even,” he writes.
I like how Chevalier has woven in historical figures here, particularly William Lobb, the English seed agent Robert works for, and John Chapman (aka Johnny Appleseed), a real-life American folk hero whom the Goodenoughs encounter from time to time in Ohio. She’s also created a handful of strong female characters: Sadie; Martha, Robert’s longsuffering sister; Molly, a prostitute Robert gets friendly with; and Mrs. Bienenstock, his landlady in California. I also appreciated the way that trees serve as a metaphor for new beginnings and deciding to settle somewhere rather than remaining a nomad forever: “Seeds could keep for a long time. All they needed was the right place to take root.”
All the same, I had a few major problems with the novel. Especially in the early parts, there is too much detail about tree planting and grafting. It’s clear that Chevalier did a huge amount of research, but sometimes she doesn’t incorporate the results very naturally. There are also some melodramatic plot twists that can seem pretty far-fetched. Moreover, the complicated structure, moving from 1838 through 1856, then from 1838 to 1856 once again, feels fragmentary and almost like cheating. It also splits the attention between Sadie and James on the one hand and Robert on the other in a way that makes Robert come across as somewhat less than a protagonist – more of a drifter responding to circumstance than an active player.
Having now read seven out of Chevalier’s eight historical novels, I’d rank At the Edge of the Orchard among the bottom few. It’s not one of the better examples of how she illuminates a little-known aspect of history. This reminded me most of Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music, which has a similar California frontier setting but more memorable characters overall.
At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier
The Borough Press 9780007350391 hbk March 2016
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