Book Review: At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier

Book - At the Edge of the Orchardby Tracy Chevalier“Sadie is the most monstrous character I’ve ever written,” explained Tracy Chevalier at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, “and she was very fun to write”. Sadie Goodenough, along with her husband James, take centre stage as the characters of Chevalier’s novel At the Edge of the Orchard. Set in 1830s Ohio, in an area known as the ‘Black Swamp’ where farmers planted orchards, the book is an alternative to the idyllic American settler literature. This pioneer couple are engaged in brutal domestic warfare, fighting about everything, including apples.  

Whilst James is obsessed with growing sweet ‘Golden Pippins’ for eating, Sadie is determined to grow sour apples for ‘applejack’, a kind of strong cider. She drinks plenty of the stuff, and is angry when James appears to care more about his apple trees than he does about her. The couple have five children, but life is hard in the Black Swamp, and we soon discover that another five children have not survived.

Most of the narrative is told in the third person, but some sections are told through the voice of Sadie. “She’s so strong,” Chevalier explained, “she had to tell her own story in her own way”. You can certainly hear her clearly in these sections, and it does help you to see things from her perspective (she isn’t the most likeable of characters). The lack of punctuation gives you an impression of someone with little education, who is constantly trying to break free from her constraints:

“I heard theres land out west thats got no trees on it at all… I tried to talk to James bout goin there, but he wouldnt listen, said weve made a place for ourselves, hunkered down like toads in the stinkin rottin swamp, and here well stay.”

The book is split into two halves. We soon leave the Goodenough family behind, reading a series of letters from Robert, who appears to have suddenly left home at the age of nine. The letters cover fifteen years, but they give no clue as to why Robert left, or why he never hears back from the family. We follow his fortunes as he ends up in California, searching for gold. It’s in California that he discovers incredible Redwood trees, and the ginormous Sequoias, and becomes employed by pioneering plant collector William Lobb.

Eventually we do find out what happened all those years ago, and catch up with Robert’s younger sister Martha, who has had her own troubles to contend with. The fifteen-year gap, when we leave the Goodenough family behind and follow Robert to California, was important for the story, Chevalier explained, because it poses the question, “can we ever leave family trauma behind us?” The novel explores how childhood events can have a significant impact on someone’s life.

The book is actually based around two real historical characters: Johnny Appleseed (who travelled around Ohio delivering apple seeds to farmers in a canoe) and the naturalist William Lobb. It’s fascinating to read about this period of America’s history. It also makes you wonder how you’d survive in a place like the Black Swamp.

The book ends quite dramatically with plenty of excitement, as Robert is forced to confront his future, realising that no amount of travelling can put the past behind him. If you like historical fiction, then this is a fabulous read which really delves into the issues of dysfunctional family dynamics. The characters are individual and engaging – Sadie, James, Robert and Martha seem like real people, and the plot keeps you guessing until the very end.

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