At the Edge of the Orchard

orchard jacketAt the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier

I was looking forward to reading this book because my book groups have discussed two of Chevalier’s historical novels, The Last Runaway and Remarkable Creatures. Also, a family-run apple orchard sounded like a pleasant setting. Surprisingly, the orchard, on the edge of the Black Swamp in mid-19th century Ohio, is a dark and violent place. James Goodenough and his wife Sadie moved from Connecticut, where no land was available. To prove their homestead claim in Ohio, they need to raise 50 apple trees. They have several children, but life is hard, with bone-shaking fevers (malaria) every year. Growing apple trees on the edge of the swamp is challenging, especially with harsh winter weather. James loves the sweet apples from his grafted trees, but Sadie prefers the natural “spitters”, apples for hard cider and the applejack John Chapman introduces her to. Unfortunately, Sadie is a mean drunk, and the family suffers. Youngest son Robert, who’s fascinated by the trees, leaves and ends up in California during the gold rush. A grove of giant sequoias fascinates him and leads to a job. Robert’s sister Martha eventually joins him, and he learns the sad history of the family he left behind. The California setting is quite appealing and the novel is compelling reading, but this wasn’t the book I was hoping to read.


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