Book Review: At the Edge of the Orchard

Synopsis from Goodreads:

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 generally enjoy Tracy Chevalier’s books – and while I did enjoy this historical fiction, I felt it wasn’t one of her stronger ones. Set in America in the early to mid 19th century, the book focuses on American westward expansion, pulling together two branches of the same story of a settler family, the Goodenoughs. The main character of the book, Robert Goodenough, is a boy living with his family in the Black Swamp area of Ohio as the book opens. His mother and father are possibly the worst-matched couple ever, and they take it out on each other and their children, while attempting to carve a life out of the wilderness. The second story line follows Robert as he makes his way as an adult into Wisconsin, Texas, and ultimately to California, initially following gold fever but finding his niche in life as a tree agent, scouting for seeds and trees in California’s wilds to collect and sell.

One of the focuses of the book is trees, particularly apple trees (hence the title of the book), and while I saw other reviews that felt there was too much detail provided, that was one of the things I actually liked best about the book. Want to know more about older types of apples or how you graft stock? You get a crash course in all of those those details, mixed in with the tale of the Goodenoughs. Trees serve as a parallel for Robert’s entire life. While seemingly fixed and immovable, trees in his book take on almost a life of their own, transported across the country, and even across the ocean, and are representative of Robert’s outlook on life, where he feels stuck in one place, but never actually sets down roots (even at the book’s end). Melding historical details with a personal story is really what Chevalier excells at, in my opinion, but I had a really hard time finding much to like about many of the characters in this book. The descriptions of mid-century California, the San Francisco area as well as inland groves of redwood and sequoia trees, are beautifully described, however, and serve as a bucket list for more places I’d like to visit in that area.

If you enjoy historical fiction with a lot of well-researched detail, I’ll recommend this author to you, but I would look for one of her other works, like Remarkable Creatures (which I loved), Lady and the Unicorn or The Runaway (or even The Girl with the Pearl Earring) first. This one was a meh read for me.

Book 2/2 for Completely Melanie’s TBR Knockout challenge and book 6/15 for the Fall Into Reading Challenge.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: At the Edge of the Orchard

  1. Great review Anne. I love Tracy Chevalier but have felt the same as you on a couple of her books. This is in my list to read, so it will be interesting if I feel like you.

    1. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it when you read it. I’m 100% behind her historical details. Honestly, the main character’s parents were so nasty, I think it colored my entire perception of the story since it’s a third or so of it. I am, however, an apple geek. I love all the heritage types. And we had a line of cider apples that divided our pastures when we lived in Vermont, all a little bit different in taste, and I loved that about them.

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