At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier

It’s been some time since I last read a Tracy Chevalier novel, but having enjoyed some of her books in the past, I was pleased to have the opportunity to read her latest one, At the Edge of the Orchard.

The story begins in 1838 in the Black Swamp of Ohio, where James and Sadie Goodenough are attempting to make a living from the harsh, inhospitable earth on which they have settled. With the help of their five children, James is working hard to establish an orchard with enough apple trees to satisfy the requirements to legally claim their piece of land. Sadie, who does not share her husband’s ambition, longs to move on and start again somewhere else – somewhere more comfortable and welcoming. Finding solace in the strong cider and applejack produced from the fruits of the orchard, Sadie’s is a miserable existence from which there seems to be no escape.

Time passes and we jump forward to the 1850s where the youngest Goodenough son, Robert, has made his way alone to California. What happened to the rest of the family? Why does Robert never get a reply to the letters he sends home to his brothers and sisters? We’ll have to wait until later in the book for these questions to be answered, but in the meantime we read about Robert’s work with the plant collector William Lobb, gathering seeds and plants to sell to gardeners in England. Having grown up surrounded by trees, this is the sort of job that interests Robert – yet there is still something missing from his life, and when he is finally given a chance of happiness, he will have to decide whether to take it.

I enjoyed At the Edge of the Orchard and found it a surprisingly compelling read. I say ‘surprisingly’ because, despite the title and the picture on the cover, which should have been clues, I wasn’t fully prepared for so much information on trees: in the orchard sections, we learn about different types of apple tree – the qualities of ‘eaters’ versus ‘spitters’; the taste of James’ favourite Golden Pippins; and the methods used to graft one tree onto another – and in the California sections we are given a wealth of information on the giant sequoia trees of Calaveras Grove. I have to admit, although I do appreciate the beauty and importance of trees, I have very little interest in them. I’m impressed that Tracy Chevalier managed to hold my attention from the first page to the last; I was never bored and would never have expected a book about trees to be so engaging!

Of course, this is not just a book about trees – it’s also a book about human beings, following the stories of several very different characters. At first, the Goodenoughs don’t seem to be a very pleasant set of people. James is decent enough, but with a tendency to be violent when things annoy him and a frustrating single-mindedness when it comes to growing and nurturing his precious apple trees. His wife, Sadie, is a deeply unhappy woman but any sympathy I may have had for her was destroyed by her bitter, spiteful nature and needlessly cruel actions. It wasn’t until later in the novel that I found some characters I could like and care about. In fact, a series of letters written by two of these characters broke my heart…the sense of loneliness and desperation they each felt came across so strongly.

The novel is carefully structured, moving backwards and forwards in time to ensure that certain things are kept hidden until it becomes necessary for us to know them. A mixture of styles are used to tell the story too, from the letters I’ve mentioned above to conventional third party narration and several passages narrated by Sadie in a very distinctive voice of her own. Although the story of the Goodenoughs is fictional, we also meet several real historical figures: the legendary Johnny Appleseed is one you may have heard of, but the English tree collector William Lobb was also a real person. There are so many different elements to At the Edge of the Orchard and they all come together to form one fascinating, enjoyable and very moving novel.

I’ve now read four Tracy Chevalier novels and so far they have all been very different, covering such diverse subjects as the Dutch art world (Girl with a Pearl Earring), fossil collecting on the south coast of England (Remarkable Creatures), religious conflict in 16th century France (The Virgin Blue) and now the trees and orchards of 19th century America. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of her books now that I’ve been reminded of them!

Thanks to HarperCollins for providing a review copy of this book via NetGalley.