Tracy Chevalier’s new novel, At the Edge of the Orchard, is a heartbreaking narrative of an Ohio pioneer family’s struggles that bears no resemblance to the pastoral stories in the Little House series.
The novel begins amid the loamy misery of 19th-century rural Ohio. James and Sadie Goodenough and their 10 children—swamp fever ends up claiming five—have traveled from Connecticut in search of a place to put down roots. When the family’s wagon becomes stuck in the mud, their grueling, cross-country journey comes to an abrupt halt, and the Black Swamp becomes home by default.
While readers will likely find it tough to sympathize with the hard-drinking, ill-tempered and foul-mouthed Sadie, her seemingly stolid and mild-mannered husband is no more sympathetic. Obsessed with the welfare of his apple trees, especially his rare and delicate Golden Pippins, James makes his orchard the third party in their relationship.
But when a traveling apple tree salesman becomes a frequent visitor to the Goodenough’s Black Swamp home, Sadie becomes smitten by the charismatic man. Known as John Appleseed, he provides an escape from her daily drudgery with a steady stream of alcohol-infused applejack.
After a random act of violence shatters the Goodenough family’s already precarious existence, the couple’s son, Robert, flees the Black Swamp, straight into the muscular arms of the California Gold Rush.
While some readers might grow a bit restless with the slow and steady pace of Chevalier’s patient narrative, her impeccable research and the abundance of fascinating historical anecdotes about everything from grafting apple trees to the circumference of the mighty redwoods adds up to a pleasureable literary experience.