From internationally bestselling author Tracy Chevalier, At the Edge of the Orchard is a riveting drama of a pioneer family on the American frontier
1838: James and Sadie Goodenough have settled where their wagon got stuck – in the muddy, stagnant swamps of northwest Ohio. They and their five children work relentlessly to tame their patch of land, buying saplings from a local tree man known as John Appleseed so they can cultivate the fifty apple trees required to stake their claim on the property. But the orchard they plant sows the seeds of a long battle. James loves the apples, reminders of an easier life back in Connecticut; while Sadie prefers the applejack they make, an alcoholic refuge from brutal frontier life.
1853: Their youngest child Robert is wandering through Gold Rush California. Restless and haunted by the broken family he left behind, he has made his way alone across the country. In the redwood and giant sequoia groves he finds some solace, collecting seeds for a naturalist who sells plants from the new world to the gardeners of England. But you can run only so far, even in America, and when Robert’s past makes an unexpected appearance he must decide whether to strike out again or stake his own claim to a home at last.
This is told in multiple voices about the Goodenough family, where we initially find them living in the Black Swamp trying to make a space for themselves. James is trying to grow trees, especially the Pitmaston that he remembers his father and grandfather growing. Sadie, his wife, hates the swamp and frontier life, and it becomes a battleground – Sadie the drunken slut who has lost most of her children, and hates the man she’s with and the trees that he looks after more than his wife.
The story jumps back and forth between 1838 and 1853, when the youngest son, Robert, ends up on the west coast of the US, near San Francisco, having been roaming and doing odd jobs for the previous 18 years. It’s a long time before we get to find out what he’s been running from, and what happened to his family since he left the Black Swamp (much of which is told in the form of his letters to his family and from his sister Martha).
In working his way west, Robert has done many a job, including mining for gold, and doing building work for the railroads, but he always seems to come back to trees – a source of fascination for him as a person, and for the British people specifically, who are going through their mania of collecting the unusual plants from all over the world. It’s only in Martha’s letters to Robert that we find out what happened to the family after he left, and we get an inkling of who the father of Martha’s baby is (and what Really Happened to brother Caleb).
After nearly 20 years of separation, Martha tracks Robert down – no mean feat in a country where there is no internet, phone, telegraph, cars, planes etc and where information can be years out of date. There is no Panama Canal, so it can take months to get from one side of the US to the other, never mind the other side of the Ocean.
Robert gets to be astounded by the strength of character of not only his sister Martha but of his part-time girlfriend Molly, both of whom are willing to travel across country (and internationally) no matter the cost. In his part time landlady Mrs B., we also get an indication of the strength of character of businesswomen who have taken their own life into their hands and live it on their own terms.
Having spent so much time alone and wondering around the country, it is the arrival of both Martha and Molly to see Robert – each with their own surprise – that makes Robert reconsider what he’s been doing the last few decades and where he wants to go next. Suddenly he realises the whole world is available to him.
With Robert and Martha’s parents, we also get to see how harsh Frontier life can be, especially for women who don’t want to be there, and will do everything – bar actually leaving – to make their life worthwhile, even if it makes them and everyone around them miserable.
The multiple voices and narrative mechanisms were employed well and stopped the book from dropping into a dark despair (the family unit was not a good place to grow up in, and both Robert and Martha did well to get away).
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About this author
Having been born in Washington DC, USA, Chevalier moved to London after graduating from Oberlin in 1984. She’d studied for a semester in London and thought it was a great place, so came over for fun, expecting to go back to the US after 6 months to get serious, but is still in London, and still not entirely serious.