- - Thursday, May 12, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

AT THE EDGE OF THE ORCHARD

By Tracy Chevalier

Viking, $27, 285 pages

“Trees ain’t supposed to move, and then thrive when they do,” said Sadie Goodenough to John Chapman — better known as Johnny Appleseed — who replied, “trees move all the time … trees are ruthless. They fight each other for light, for water, for all the good things that are in the ground. They survive only when they have enough space between them.” Chapman sold seeds, saplings and trees to pioneer settlers like the Goodenoughs; he was a shaggy man, “shaggy hair and beard, long fingernails, heels like cheese rinds. Bright eyes though that flashed and followed their own conversation.”

Tracy Chevalier, author of “The Girl with the Pearl Earring,” has turned from 17th century Holland to the 19th-century American West. Trees are central to “At the Edge of the Orchard,” apple trees grown by James Goodenough, first in Connecticut and then in Ohio’s Black Swamp, and California’s redwoods and giant sequoias.

But while trees may be at the heart of this unusual story, this is not a book about trees but, rather, about how trees shaped the lives of the hapless Goodenough family.

The novel spans two decades, beginning in 1838 when James and Sadie had moved west to Ohio after an arduous journey, settling “in the misery of the Black Swamp, with its stagnant water, its stench of rot and mold, its thick black mud that even scrubbing couldn’t get out of skin and cloth.” In this inhospitable land, James struggled to raise an orchard of fifty sour “spitters” for cider and applejack and sweet “eaters,” the number required to keep his claim.

The Goodenough orchard “was not spectacular, but it was proof to James that he could tame one small patch of land, make the trees do what he wanted. Beyond them, wilderness waited in the tangled undergrowth and sudden bogs; you had to take each step with care or find yourself up to your thighs in black stagnant water.”

Sadie had given birth to 10 children, five of whom died of the “swamp fever.” She was no longer the “lively girl in the blue dress who had wrapped her legs around [James] and laughed.” but had become an embittered alcoholic, who “moved between extremes: attractive when she was loving … or, more often, unpredictable, vicious or indifferent.”

The novel follows Robert, the youngest of the five Goodenough children “with the most future in him, the one the swamp wouldn’t get,” after he leaves the farm. Why he fled is not disclosed until later. Robert spent the next years wandering the country from Lake Erie to California, working as a bottle washer, on ranches, in stables, and trying his hand at mining gold, giving up the latter because “it breaks a man’s spirit to chase gold.” In Texas, he fell briefly and passionately in love with Molly, whose heart and bed were always open.

Robert delighted in the magnificent California redwoods and giant sequoias, but was dismayed at the forest’s depletion to make room for tourist entertainment centers. By chance, he encountered William Lobb, the real-life British naturalist who collected seeds and saplings to send back to England to grace English gardens. Lobb hired Robert to help him collect. Robert did well, made friends, and crossed paths again with Molly.

Yet, throughout his wanderings, Robert had a feeling of guilt and “an ache deep in his chest, like a splinter of sadness needling into his heart.”

When his sister, Martha, “a leaf of a girl with thin hair and pinched gray eyes,” whom he left behind, finds him, he is overjoyed, but brokenhearted when she dies.

Robert is a passive character about whom the reader knows little. His reunion with Martha and Molly forces him to make a choice — creating a family versus continuing to collect tree samples. However, it is Molly, always practical, who determines their future.

“The Edge of the Orchard” is told in several voices: a straight narrative, Sadie’s colloquial voice, letters Robert wrote home every January 1, and letters Martha wrote to Robert. Time slips back and forth, but without confusion. Rather, the style serves as a device to keep the reader’s interest until all is revealed — what happened to Robert’s parents (a violent end), to his siblings and to the farm. The inclusion of the real-life characters of Chapman and Lobb add an authentic and lively touch.

Miss Chevalier’s novel offers a glimpse into the lives of some of America’s pioneers, who braved hardship and poverty that broke the spirit of many, but drove others to find a better future. Her descriptions of life in the Black Swamp, of the love/hate relationship between Sadie and James, of the magnificent beauty of the giant trees and the unexpected twists of fate in the lives of her characters. are realistic and compassionate. “The Edge of the Orchard” is a well written tale about people with courage, including strong women who make the best of what life offers.

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.

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