Thursday, February 25, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier

Disclaimer: I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

I’m a latecomer to Tracy Chevalier’s novels, but I’m going to work my way back through them now that I’ve started with her newest, At the Edge of the Orchard, to be released March 15.

At the novel’s opening, Robert Goodenough is a sensitive, serious, nine-year-old boy, growing up in a failing apple orchard in Black Swamp, Ohio, in the mid-nineteenth century. His father is a "tree man," devoted to growing a particular variety of golden sweet apples. His mother is a drunk. Selfish, lazy, and possibly mentally ill, Sadie Goodenough is abusive to her children and to her husband. With an inflated opinion of her own charms, she is not above flirting with the itinerant tree salesman (Johnny Appleseed) or dallying with strangers at camp meetings. Sadie is a horrifying character, and the reader’s pity for her children takes a turn when the setting abruptly changes. It is years later, and the grown-up Robert is found in California after a lifetime of wandering during which he attempting ranching, gold-mining, and petty thievery. He finds his niche when hunting down a rumored grove of massive trees, the Giant Sequoias. Awed by the grove and disturbed by its transformation into a tourist trap, Robert meets a like-minded tree man and botanist, William Lobb, an Englishman collecting seeds and seedlings to send home to a nursery in England. Robert links up with the man and settles in to a job that suits him perfectly.

One would like to think this new career would help soothe Robert’s restlessness, but there is still the question of what drove him from Black Swamp all those years ago. Robert does not dwell on the past, but it’s clear he’s avoiding something. Because of it, he avoids entanglements with people, particularly women. All that is about to change, when his past finds him.

This book shows the beauty of nature and contrasts it with the harsh realities facing early settlers on the westward moving frontier. The characters are well drawn but somewhat distant, appropriate to the narrative. The detailed descriptions of daily life and work make this a fascinating historical novel.