At the Edge of the Orchard

Written by Tracy Chevalier
Review by Sarah Johnson

The search for happiness, the complex entanglements of family life, and people’s reactions to trying circumstances: these themes are familiar and universal. What makes Chevalier’s eighth novel distinctive is how she links them to the mid-19th century world of trees and the care she takes with her realistic characters. It also moves beautifully between different styles and viewpoints, and the plot offers many surprises.

By 1838, the Goodenoughs have spent years living amid the muddy wetlands of northwestern Ohio, growing fruit trees as a requirement of their settlement – but not everyone blooms where they’re planted.

For the father, James, apples are sustenance, a delicious reward, a symbol of prosperity, and justification for his family’s continued stay in an inhospitable land. For his neglected wife, Sadie, they’re a hateful obstacle to returning home, and also, through her love for strong applejack, they provide a means of escape. The arduousness of frontier life, which Sadie detests, is illustrated in meticulous detail. The Goodenoughs have lost half their children to fever; the remaining five get embroiled in their parents’ spiteful feud. Their orchard becomes a battleground.

Part Two introduces an unsettling mystery: what drives nine-year-old Robert, the youngest son, to flee his home? Out in California in the 1850s as an adult, following rumors of a grove of giant sequoias, he stumbles into a job working for an eccentric Cornish plant collector. He actively avoids long-term commitments, women included, but later finds his past has followed him there.

Historical figures like John Chapman, aka Johnny Appleseed, are woven credibly into the story. Both Ohio’s Great Swamp and the American frontier itself are long gone, but the novel recaptures these settings through its elegantly written, emotion-filled narrative. One of Chevalier’s strongest novels, it will also leave you pondering the awe-inspiring splendor of nature and people’s connections to it.