Note: Penguin Random House sent me this e-book via First to Read for free in exchange for my honest review.
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.
‘At The Edge of The Orchard’ is written in a mixture of first person past limited and third person. The first person is told from Sandie Goodenough’s point of view with a disgruntled, slighted nature, and a bitter tone. While the third person follows one of two characters: James Goodenough and Robert Goodenough with less voice than the first person. There are also letters written by some of the characters throughout the book, adding to the variety of voices and the style of the story telling.
Pacing: The pacing of the novel is a unique flavor as it bounces back and forth between the two generations: parents and children. Thus, events are offered in a way to pique and satiate interest. In this way, the reader remains invested in the story throughout the book as the generations melt from one to the next rather than abruptly shifting.
World: The world is limited, but understandably so. Given its setting in America during the mid-1800s when much of the land was still being discovered and settled, there is quite a bit the author does not describe. Even then, the details are carefully chosen. Only certain parts of the scenery are highlighted, adding an emphasis on them and ignoring the distracting, irrelevant details of the rest.
Writing: The writing is casual, following the patterns of how people think: one thought to the next. Sometimes seamless. Sometimes abrupt. Sometimes important. Sometimes pointless. Yet, not dry, nor dull, nor boring. It gives appropriate emphasis to things that matter and to the characters’ personalities, shaping what they care about. The casual manner makes for an easy read.
Non-Spoilered Plot: America in the mid-1800s was a time for venturing west and finding a place and a name and maybe some gold for oneself. Though, life can be tough for an apple farmer in an area not hospitable to apple trees. Yet, parents will do anything they can to provide for their children and offer them the best future they can.
Character: The three main characters given voice and precedence in the book are Sadie Goodenough(mother), James Goodenough(father), and Robert Goodenough(son). Each character may experience the same circumstances, but it’s because of their age and their background that their voices change and morph because of these circumstances. In so doing, their varying voices add an array of detail and understanding of the story, the events, and the other characters. Most importantly, all the characters act, react, and interact in reliable and realistic ways.
Plot: The plot could easily be one of self-discovery for both generations as the elder generation set out from their home, their family, and their comfort to find a life of their own. In so doing, they found what they are made of, what they can handle, and what will drive them to madness. At the same time, the younger generation sees this discovery in their parents and, upon deciding it’s not for them, leaves to find a life better suited for themselves.
The elder generation are used to a life in comfort having grown up on apple farms that were pre-developed by their ancestors. They did not know how much hard work goes into setting up an apple farm. Yet, they did not choose an easy place to do so either: a swamp. As a result, the family suffers. They face many hardships: starvation, disease, mud, and conflict within the family, which leads them to act stir crazy at best and deadly at worst. It’s only a matter of time before such anger, sadness, and desperation catches up with a person.
It forces Sadie Goodenough to take take extreme measures to ensure her family can leave the godforsaken swamp. She takes an ax to the apple trees. After all, without apple trees, the family has no reason to stay. They are no longer tied to the land and can leave, heading west, or back home. For Sadie, anywhere would be better than the swamp that has taken five of her ten children with its sickness. Yet, in so doing, she murderers her husband because he would do anything to save his beloved apple trees, even step in front of an ax. Though, he would not murder his wife to save the trees, but life never turns out the way people plan and what was meant to be a push, causes Sadie to fall on the spikes around the apple trees. A double accidental murder of parents.
Having witnessed this atrocity at just nine-years-old, young Robert Goodenough leaves. He travels across the country. He goes as far west as the wide country of the United States will allow him, but even there his past catches up to him. His love for trees never leaves: landing him in a business that deals with shipping trees to the English to spruce up and decorate their gardens. Yet, even in this business he loves, Robert is restless. With no family to hear from, no significant other, and no more land to put between him and his past, he finds himself at a loss.
It’s only when life takes an unexpected turn that he realizes how he wants to live. His younger sister shows up pregnant and dies just after childbirth, leaving him a baby boy to take care of single-handed. Yet, she’s not the only one pregnant. His past encounters with a young woman named Molly have left her pregnant as well, who delivers a baby girl. With two children to take care of, a woman capable of taking care of herself, and the opportunity to leave the US entirely by way of England, Robert finds what his parents never could: satisfaction. He learns to be happy with what he has and the possibility of what kind of life he could have. And it will be nothing like the one his parents led. With this kind of hope, beautiful imagery, and a story that focuses on only the important details, I leave my rating of ‘At The Edge of The Orchard’ at five stars.
Note: This book really made me want to take up apple farming, cider making, and canning. Haha! Sounds so tasty! :p
Have you read ‘At The Edge of The Orchard’ by Tracy Chevalier? What did you think of it?
Let me know in the comments below!