I’ve been reading some good books this year and At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier is no exception, which is no surprise to me as I’ve enjoyed all of her books that I’ve read so far.
This is historical fiction, a mix of fact and fiction. Most of the places are real (and there is a helpful map at the beginning of the book) and some of the characters are historical figures. There is a lot of information about trees – apple trees, redwoods and sequoias, all of which fascinated me (especially the sequoias) and formed integral parts of the book.
It’s the story of the Goodenough family, James and his wife Sadie and their five surviving children. It begins in 1838 in Black Swamp, Ohio where James and Sadie are arguing over apples and practically everything else. James is obsessed with apples and prefers the sweet variety, the eaters , whilst Sadie loves the ‘spitters’, the bitter apples to make cider and even better, applejack. Theirs is a marriage of opposites. They had settled in the only land available – the swamp and had struggled first of all to clear the land and plant the apple seedlings and seed they had brought with them from Connecticut.
Their story alternates between James’ perspective and Sadie’s – their voices clearly distinctive and recognisable. Sadie is bitter and vindictive, picking fights wherever she can and their family life is terrible. James, although he loves his children is unable to show his feelings and Sadie moves between extremes, is unpredictable, at times loving but more often vicious and cruel to them or simply indifferent. She constantly taunts James, and their relationship going from bad to worse. Of all the children Robert is the one who shows an interest in the apple trees.
In the second part of the book the focus is on Robert, the youngest son who leaves Black Swamp after an incident that is only revealed later in the book. He went west, working where he could including a stint as a gold miner in California, until he reached the ocean ending up in San Francisco where he worked for William Lobb (a real historical figure), collecting seeds and seedlings to send to England. His story is told through the unanswered letters he sent to the family over seventeen years.
The characters are wonderful, from the dysfunctional Goodenough family, to Molly, the strong, independent and resourceful woman Robert meets during the time he worked as a gold miner. I also liked Martha, Robert’s younger sister, who shows determination and spirit despite the heart-breaking situations she has to live through.
I loved the settings, and would love to visit places described such as Calaveras Grove and South Grove to see the giant redwoods and sequoias for myself, but I doubt very much that I will ever be able to see them. In the Acknowledgements Tracy Chevalier refers to a place nearer to home that I could visit. It is in Wales – the Charles Ackers Redwood Grove which was planted in 1857 by John Naylor of Leighton Hall.
The one criticism I have is the ending. I came to the last page and thought ‘is that it?’ – I wanted to know more. I hope there will be a sequel.
My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for my copy of this book for review.
- Format: Kindle Edition
- File Size: 1824 KB
- Print Length: 305 pages
- Publisher: HarperCollins UK, HarperFiction The Borough Press (10 Mar. 2016)