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At the Edge of the Orchard


At the Edge of the Orchard

Tracy Chevalier has a special talent for combining events from real life with fictional characters who represent the peanut gallery for that historical figure --- men and women whose lives were touched by the iconic figure’s work in both good and bad ways.

THE GIRL WITH THE PEARL EARRING is about the model of the famous portrait, while REMARKABLE CREATURES tells the story of Mary Anning, the “fossil girl” who discovered important dinosaur fossils on a beach in England. The perspective is always on someone who may be an ancillary part of the process. But it helps the reader to connect with someone who is like them, living in the middle of this great adventure, with us being the only ones who know the outcome. Fun, exciting, beautifully paced, and with gorgeous maintenance of tone and structure, Chevalier’s books are wonderful literary fiction, the kind that you can read at the beach but ultimately take home from the rental house with you because you know you’ll want to read it again. 

Now Chevalier turns her attention to one of America’s pioneer entrepreneurs, Johnny Appleseed. The erstwhile apple farmer with the metal pail hat, wearing hobo clothes and wandering the earth with a huge sack of apple seeds over his shoulder, tossing them into the right place for beautiful orchards to grace the pioneer landscape --- this is the Johnny Appleseed of fable but not exactly of American fact. Chevalier makes the awesome effort to create a family that both benefits and suffers at the hand of Mr. Appleseed’s work.

"Family, commerce, pioneer life, the trials and tribulations of marriage, the solo journeys of businessman Johnny Appleseed --- all of these interconnect in a rousing story about the beginnings of a historical era we thought we knew all about."

In 1838, James and Sadie Goodenough settled in northwest Ohio when their wagon got stuck in the famous stagnant mud swamps of the area. With their five hardworking offspring, they do everything they can to turn their parcel of land into a blooming, beautiful orchard, courtesy of the seeds from Johnny Appleseed himself. They are required by the state to stake a claim on their property by investing in and growing apple trees, 50 to be exact. James remembers their easier life in Connecticut, enjoying his apples for the sake of their deliciousness and health benefits. 

However, Sadie thinks that the sour apples, “the spitters,” are the ones they should focus on since those are the types of apples you use to make applejack. This liquor becomes a balm for the horribly difficult frontier life they are living. James and Sadie take turns telling their story --- James very well-educated and well-spoken, Sadie a mess of rambling vernacular, distrust of her husband and anger at her kids, who take up too much of her energy. Applejack is her good friend.

Appleseed is shown to them as a businessman, not the folk hero that people write happy children’s books about in this day and age. It is fascinating to see how he affects the lives of his clients. The Goodenough clan is surprising, a mass of unspoken anger and resentment, and their difficult life makes them both relatable and hateable. 

The book shifts a little in tone in 1853, when the Goodenoughs’ youngest child, Robert, becomes enamored of the possibilities of the Gold Rush and heads west to make his fortune. Leaving a family broken in pieces by the struggles on the orchard, he finds a new home amidst the sequoia and the redwood groves of California. There he collects seeds for a naturalist who is selling the plants to gardeners in England who want a little bit of the new world to grow in their fertile patches. However, even in this untamed part of America, Robert finds that he cannot outrun his past and decides to stake his own claim, a journey that we get to take with him.

Family, commerce, pioneer life, the trials and tribulations of marriage, the solo journeys of businessman Johnny Appleseed --- all of these interconnect in a rousing story about the beginnings of a historical era we thought we knew all about. In the search for meaning, money and love in the Goodenoughs’ tale, there is a story about all of us, every single family and the things that our ancestors went through to make our Netflix and chill world possible.

As the book ends, a baby sees the ocean for the first time. That spirit of the America we can be proud of, where we move to our own beat and are always looking for the next horizon and challenge, is safe and steadfast. I guarantee you will find it to be a fascinating adventure.

Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on March 25, 2016

At the Edge of the Orchard
by Tracy Chevalier

  • Publication Date: January 31, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books
  • ISBN-10: 0143110977
  • ISBN-13: 9780143110972