Thursday, April 28, 2016

Apple Wars: At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier

Tracy Chevalier is best known for her first historical fiction book The Girl With the Pearl Earring which imagines the subject of Vermeer's painting of the same name. I have read all of her books since.

Her new novel At the Edge of the Orchard includes historical figures Johnny 'Appleseed' Chapman  and William Lobb who collected seeds and seedlings for export to England. But its focus is on the Goodenough family's tumultuous history and battles over what kind of apples to grow.

The story begins in the Black Swamp of Ohio, just outside of Perrysburg, where James and Sadie Goodenough are trying to establish a homestead in mud and amongst mosquitoes. They left Connecticut to find land, traveling west until the good roads ended in the swamp.

James has brought his beloved Golden Pippin apple seeds, a legacy brought by his ancestor from England to Connecticut where his father raised apple trees. The apple's flavor recalls James home, a sweet apple with a sharpness and a finish of pineapple. To keep one's land claim James must have an orchard of 34 trees. He sets the goal higher to fifty.

James prefers the good eating Golden Pippin apples, but his wife Sarah has become dependent on the Apple Jack made from the sour 'spitter' apples. After years living in isolated wilderness, losing her children to the annual fever, and regretting her marriage to James instead of his brother Charlie, Sadie is bitter and angry. Only the Apple Jack offers respite.

A family tragedy drives the Goodenough son Robert to leave home, heading west. He becomes an eternal wanderer, alone and separate, but writing an annual letter home to the siblings he left behind. Robert's journey ends at the Pacific Ocean where he discovers the giant Sequoia trees and William Lobb, an English seed agent. Robert finds work collecting Sequoia seedlings for Lobb.

This Sequoia stump appears in At The Edge of the Orchard.
Robert is enigmatic, a living ghost cut off from society and unsure of what 'family' really means. He makes few choices, just goes with where life leads him. Reaching the limits of America he finds himself going back East for the first time, to end up where his family began.

This novel begins with the Goodenoughs, jumps to a series of letters from Robert, to rejoining Robert in the West. The early section is violent and full of action, the characters powerfully drawn. The second part is quiet and internal. Robert is so shut down and uncommunicative that he almost fades from his own story, allowing stronger personalities to shine. There is no resolution to his story, but movement towards a possible new beginning brings hope.

Following the Goodenoughs is a badly used nine-patch quilt, with fabrics holding memories of home. But it is a home life Robert escaped from, at the behest of his mother, a hard life with a family at war. The quilt is torn and repaired, but makes the bedding for the next generation.

And that is perhaps what life is all about, each generation taking the tattered remnants of whatever good they can glean and use it to endeavor to cushion and ease the way for the generation to come.

I received an ARC through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Hear an interview with the author at NPR here.

At the Edge of the Orchard
Tracy Chevalier
Publication Date March 15, 2016
hard cover $27.00
ISBN 9780525953005

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