Apples! Only someone of Tracy Chevalier’s calibre can pick such an ordinary fruit and create the most mesmerising, sweeping novel centred around them.
As a huge fan of her earlier books, particularly Girl with a Blue Earring and The Last Runaway, I was positively giddy to be approved by HarperCollins to review her latest creation, At the Edge of the Orchard. I started reading with a great sense of anticipation.
‘They were fighting over apples again.’
Constant war reigns between James and Sadie Goodenough in Ohio in 1838 and onwards as they struggle to turn the inhospitable and aptly named Black Swamp into a successful apple orchard. To James, son of an eminent apple farmer in Connecticut, apples and their trees are an obsession and are treated with reverential care and none more so than his beloved Golden Pippen, a sweet-tasting ‘eater’.
Meanwhile, his wife Sadie seeks solace from the misery of her life, her losses, in the applejack cider which is made from fresh ‘spitters’ apples.
In the midst of their bitter, self-centred and often violent marriage, ten children are born and many die from the yearly ‘skeeters’ (mosquitoes). Those that survive are more slaves to their parents than children and fend for themselves in the brutal harsh world. It is a gruelling existence which is described in great detail and intensity; I felt as if I suffered with them.
Robert, the youngest son, is striking with his disarming knowing look that unsettles both James and Sadie equally; his quiet diplomacy at times succeeds in calming the household even though he is also interested in the apples. Martha meanwhile is a sickly child, who nevertheless runs the family ‘home’ and she is pithily described by Sadie as:
‘Martha was the runt of the litter, the only weak one left who hadn’t died. She hummed all the time, hymns to block out the sounds of Deaths footstep behind her.’
This example is just one of the variety of brilliant narrative techniques used by Tracy Chevalier in this book. Her skilful entwining of narrative voices creates a fully immersive read and it starts with a close third person (James’s) point of view interwoven with the simpler, colloquial, childlike, even bawdy and misspelt first person voice of Sadie. I felt I was involved in an intimate conversation with her at some stages.
Altogether there are five chapters, each from a different era though some do overlap. One chapter is a masterful collection of Robert’s yearly (unanswered) letters back home following his sudden departure from Black Swamp as a child, describing his intriguing and tough adventures over seventeen years as he heads further west. The mystery as to the cause of his sudden departure is not revealed until much later, however. His life is vividly portrayed as he enters the Gold Rush in California and ultimately ends up working for Willian Lobb, a famous tree collector.
Whilst the first section of the book deals deftly with details of apple grafting, growth, picking, the second section centres around the grand sequoia of California and of Robert’s life with them. The description of the sequoia that Robert first encounters is awe-inspiring and I can visualise the whole scene exactly.
Throughout the book, Tracy Chevalier expertly weaves fact with fiction, including the then recently discovered Calaveras Grove in California. Billie Latham built the infamous stage on the stump of first giant sequoia, named The Discovery Tree, to be cut down at the Grove. As a tree agent, Robert becomes responsible under William Lobb to collect seeds and saplings to send to James Veitch, an English nurseryman for the stately homes in the UK.
The rough pioneering life of California is recreated brilliantly with the raw hard life in San Francisco captured in minute detail whilst evoking the enthralling enticing allure of the wildlife. Robert is forced to forgo his lonely existence when one day a visitor brings the haunted past dramatically back to him.
The characterisation in At the Edge of the Orchard is superb; there is not a single false tone or word. Everyone is realistically portrayed although it is hard to feel empathy for certain characters, especially James and Sadie.
The darkness that is all pervasive in the book would be too much without the glint of light and hope in the form of one critical person. Will she become Robert’s saviour and end the desolation that’s blighted the lives of so many?
I fell head over heels for Tracy Chevalier’s latest novel and was swept away by the story. I’m in awe of the electrifying literary writing which remained powerful throughout. Reading the book I was emotionally overwrought as well intellectually savouring the exquisite recreation of nineteenth century Ohio and California. The ending was a crescendo of sorrows and joy. The best book of 2017 – so far!
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest and impartial review. At the Edge of the Orchard is available to purchase although the paperback will be released on 7th February 2017 in the UK and is already for sale in the USA.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars.
Publisher: HarperCollins UK