Chevalier continues to be a master of historical fiction. 4/5.
Thank you to HarperCollins UK and NetGalley for providing me with an e-copy of this book.
The blurb: 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.
I’ve enjoyed all of Tracy Chevalier’s books. I leapt at the chance to request her latest without even reading the blurb, so confident was I that it would be good. And she hasn’t disappointed me.
Chevalier excels at capturing the atmosphere of a time and place. At the Edge of the Orchard transports the reader to mid-nineteenth-century America, where we struggle through the mud of the Black Swamps of Ohio before being whisked away to the hills of California to marvel at the redwoods and giant sequoias.
The story does shift around a fair bit. We jump back and forth in time, from a series of events in 1838 to another in the 1853-6, and geographically. We also get several narrative voices, which are all well-defined and distinctive. However, all these shifts are handled very well and I was never confused as to where or when we were or who was speaking. The period of time between the two main sections is covered brilliantly and briefly by a series of letters, making sure we can focus on the action which is of main interest.
Despite all this moving about, I wouldn’t say the plot is particularly complex or gripping. The experience of the times and places described is more important than any specific events or characters, although some of these do jump off the page. The deeply flawed and difficult-to-like Sadie is perhaps the most memorable of the characters. Her voice is one that will stick with me for a while.
Also, as with all of Chevalier’s books, it’s fascinating to get to the end and find out how many of the characters were real people and how many of the events/places described existed. As ever, the blending of fact and fiction is seamless and her research meticulous.
Overall: fans of historical fiction will enjoy At the Edge of the Orchard. I’d encourage anyone looking for something to read in the genre to pick up any of the author’s books.
Claire Huston / Art and Soul