At The Edge of the Orchard
By Tracy Chevalier
1838: James and Sadie Goodenough have settled where their wagon got stuck - in the muddy, stagnant swamps of northwest Ohio. They and their five children work relentlessly to tame their patch of land, buying saplings from a local tree man known as John Appleseed so they can cultivate the fifty apple trees required to stake their claim on the property. But the orchard they plant sows the seeds of a long battle. James loves the apples, reminders of an easier life back in Connecticut; while Sadie prefers the applejack they make, an alcoholic refuge from brutal frontier life.
1853: Their youngest child Robert is wandering through Gold Rush California. Restless and haunted by the broken family he left behind, he has made his way alone across the country. In the redwood and giant sequoia groves he finds some solace, collecting seeds for a naturalist who sells plants from the new world to the gardeners of England. But you can run only so far, even in America, and when Robert's past makes an unexpected appearance he must decide whether to strike out again or stake his own claim to a home at last.
This latest book from Tracy Chevalier reminds me why I enjoy reading her books so much. The Edge of the Orchard is set in 1938 in a place called Black Swamp Ohio. The book centers around the lives of the Goodenough family.
The book contains pictures of apple blossom and pine cones under each section heading for the book. The book is split into several sections with some taking the traditional novel format and some in the form of letters. The story originally alternated between the point of view of James and Sadie Goodenough and is later told from the point of view of Robert and Martha Goodenough.
“They were fighting over apples again. He wanted to grow more eaters, to eat; she wanted spitters, to drink. It was an argument rehearsed so often that by now they both played their parts perfectly, their words flowing smooth and monotonous around each other since they had heard them enough times not to have to listen anymore.
What made the fight between sweet and sour different this time was not that James Goodenough was tired; he was always tired. It wore a man down, carving out a life from the Black Swamp. It was not that Sadie Goodenough was hungover, she was often hungover. The difference was that John Chapman had been with them the night before…She was always happier, sassier, and surer of herself after John Chapman visited.”
James and Sadie have been married for twenty years and over time grudges and bitter feuds have developed, often escalating into physical blows to each other. Sadie recalls how James always seemed more interested in her family’s orchard than in her and the only reason she had sex with him in the first place was to get him to pay her some attention instead. Now she often thinks that he has more time for his trees than for her. As for James he thinks about bitter and cruel Sadie becomes after drinking Applejack and how because of that the only time her desires her is when John Chapman is visiting.
They live a hard life in Black Swamp with the ‘skeeters’ in August bringing ‘swamp fever’ and often carrying off one of their children, and with the harsh winters that seem to follow all too soon after. James craves the sweetness of his favourite ‘Golden Pippin’ apples to bring a little pleasure. James rarely cries over the loss of one of his children but often feels he could cry over the loss of a tree.
James’ every waking thought and action is devoted to those apples and ensuring that they are thriving. He also likes to cross-breed the apples to combine the flavours and try to develop something delicious. Sadie resents the time he spends on the apples and wants more of them to be assigned for her to make Applejack which she believes holds of the ‘skeeters’ and the ‘swamp fever.’
“James Goodenough was a sensible man, but apples were his weakness. They had been since he was a child and his mother had given him sweet apples as a special treat. Sweetness was a rare taste, for sugar cost dear; but an apple’s tart sweetness was almost free since apple trees took little work. He recalled with a shudder their first years in the Black Swamp without apples. He hadn’t realised until he had to go without for over three years how large a part apples had played in his life, how he craved them more than whiskey or tobacco or coffee or sex.”
Sadie for her part never wanted to live in the Black Swamp and says it’s the kind of place you just get stuck in the mud and can’t leave. She preferred it in Connecticut even though James’ sister’s in law never really liked her. Sadie feels she should be able to drink as much Applejack as she likes because she feels the planting of the apple trees was what weakened her children and made it easier for the ‘swamp fever’ to kill them and for that she will never stop hating the trees. James often feels that if he and Sadie are at war then she would win because she is far more ruthless and willing to stop at nothing to get what she wants.
“It needled him to think Sadie would try to lay claim to trees in the Orchard when she couldn’t even tell you their history. It was really not that difficult to recall the details of thirty-eight trees. Point at any one of them and James could tell you what year it was planted, from seed or seedling or sapling, or grafted….It was knowledge so basic to James Goodenough that he couldn’t imagine it would not be so to others, and so he was constantly astonished at his family’s ignorance concerning apples. They seemed to think you scattered some seeds and picked the results, with no steps in between, except for Robert. The youngest Goodenough child was always the exception.”
Robert is the one who follows him around and listens carefully to his instructions on how to tend the trees, despite this James finds his constant attention unnerving. His favourite child is his youngest girl, Martha. Martha is shy and quiet and always willing to help people but she is often to meek to stand up for herself and so is pushed around by other family members.
Sadie appears to relish making James mad and actively plots ways to ruin his apple trees and make him mad.
I was used to his slaps. Didn’t bother me none. Fighting over apples was jest what we did.
The later parts of the book focus on Robert and the life he has carved out for himself in California working with trees. He is somewhat of a loner until one day a young pregnant woman shows up looking for him.
This book is one of my favourites of the year.
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