At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier

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Reviewed by Harriet

This is the fifth of Tracy Chevalier’s eight absorbing historical novels I’ve read, and in my view it’s the best so far. I was completely sucked in to this story of mid-nineteenth-century pioneer life in America, couldn’t put it down, and couldn’t stop thinking about it once I’d finished.

Chevalier’s previous novel, The Last Runaway, which was about Quakerism, quilting and slavery, was set in 1850s Ohio, and so too is the opening section of At the Edge of the Orchard. But this is a very different environment from the small Quaker village we encountered last time round. Here we are in an area called the Black Swamp, which is every bit as unpleasant and inhospitable as the name suggests. James Goodenough, originally from Connecticut, has moved his large family there in the 1830s, seeking a new, quiet, empty place to indulge his passion for growing apples. But, as every year the family is decimated by swamp fever, and James’s once happy-go-lucky wife Sadie becomes an angry, vicious alcoholic, the family settles into an ever deeper trough of unhappiness. Then something unspeakable happens – literally unspeakable, as we don’t learn what it was until well into the novel – and the family’s youngest son Robert, aged only nine, leaves home and heads west.

The next fifteen or so years of Robert’s life are told in a series of moving letters, which he writes home once a year, despite never receiving any replies. Here we see him moving around the country, taking whatever jobs come his way – looking after horses, a period as a gold-digger – until a chance meeting changes the direction of his life completely. By now he is in northern California, visiting a grove of sequoia trees, which has become a tourist attraction, and there he encounters the English plantsman William Lobb. Lobb takes the young man on as an assistant, and the two of them continue with Lobb’s profitable business of gathering seeds and seedlings, to be shipped back to England for avid plant and tree collectors.

All this is very interesting, and is based on Chevalier’s usual impeccable historical research. A number of real historical people and places figure here, including William Lobb the plant collector and Calaveras Grove, where the newly discovered sequoias were turned into tourist attractions – complete with a bowling alley and a dance-floor on a felled tree stump — in the 1850s. In fact all in all, the novel provides a wonderfully vivid picture of young, developing north America. But this is Robert’s story, and it is through his experiences and those of his family that the background detail comes to life.  It’s hard to imagine how a nine-year-old child could have survived alone, wandering from place to place and job to job, and there are only glimpses of this, available through his initially childlike letters. By the time he comes fully into the picture, he is a young man, independent and strong in his own way. He’s seen as exceptional by most of the people he encounters, mainly because he doesn’t smoke, drink or go with women, though he does acquire an occasional, casual relationship with the irrepressible Molly. Emotionally, too, there’s clearly something unusual about Robert: he never talks in detail about his past, especially his childhood, and studiously avoids close relationships. Despite his reserve, though, he is much liked and respected as a good man and a reliable one. But it takes a reunion and a tragedy to move Robert forward into a challenging future, full of promise, in which it is clear that the barriers he has erected round his heart will be finally broken down.

At the Edge of the Orchard is really a novel in two parts, and though the main story concerns Robert and his growing up, the first section in the Black Swamp is also extremely powerful. The relationship between Robert’s parents is painfully credible – James, the taciturn father, struggling to keep his beloved trees alive and healthy in the face of the endless animosity of Sadie, his angry, frequently intoxicated wife. Indeed the trees are the source of much of her rage – she wants him to grow cider apples so she can make applejack, the strong alcoholic drink she craves, while he focuses his attention on cultivating eating apples, the sweet ‘golden pippins’ he has brought with him from Connecticut. The effect on the children of this continuing animosity is terrible to see, and more terrible still is the final outcome, the event that precipitates the young boy into the world and more or less destroys the lives of the children who remain at home. Sadie, in particular, is a wonderfully created character: her actions are unforgivable, but it’s easy to see how she has slid into alcoholism in response to her hard, frustrating life, the coldness of her husband, and the loss of five of her ten children.

I’ve always been fascinated by pioneer life in North America, and found this a most satisfying and thought-provoking portrait of it. Highly recommended.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Tracy Chevalier, At the Edge of the Orchard (Borough Press, 2016). 978-0007350391, 304pp., hardback.

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