Book review: At the Edge of the Orchard

At the Edge of the OrchardI enjoy historical fiction and I’ve read of all of Tracy Chevalier’s novels, so I was happy to learn about her latest when it was released. This was my favorite novel since A Girl With A Pearl Earring.

At the Edge of the Orchard is set in the mid 1800s, and follows the difficult lives of American settlers in Ohio. Unlike many romantic depictions of pioneer life, this novel illustrates the harsh reality of survival in inhospitable settings, the death of children to disease, and the struggle to produce enough food to survive the rigid winters.

Like many Americans of the era, James and Sadie Goodenough move out west from Connecticut, hoping to claim a plot of land in order to build new lives for themselves. When their wagon gets stuck in the mud of Ohio’s Black Swamp, they decide to settle there. But the land is inhospitable. Their family grows, but ‘Black Swamp Fever’ – malaria – quickly takes its toll and carries away a child each year. The family ekes out barely enough to survive, and Sadie, already unstable, worsens in an environment where alcohol is the only escape from reality.

James Goodenough is passionate about his apple orchard, which he tends to lovingly – both from saplings he buys from ‘Johnny Appleseed’, who plays a small but important role in the novel, and from grafts he has transported with him from Connecticut. His youngest son, Robert, seems to share his passion for trees. But the carefully tended apple orchard leads to even greater tensions between husband and wife.

When those tensions explode,  young Robert leaves his family to travel out west, eventually settling in California during the Gold Rush. Following a stint among the miners, Robert returns to his love for trees, collecting seeds of redwoods and sequoias for grand English gardens.

After deftly describing settler life in the Midwest, we follow along on westward expansion and the (pipe) dreams that fueled the settlements on the west coast. This sweeping saga is extremely well researched and enjoyable, with interesting and informative historical and research notes at the end.

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