Favorite Quote: trees move all the time … trees are ruthless. They fight each other for light, for water, for all the good things that are in the ground. They survive only when they have enough space between them.
I have complicated thing going on with Tracy Chevalier in that I’m always drawn to her books, but they often leave me feeling a little unsettled. This particular title was selected for bookclub. I would say I might not have read it otherwise, but the truth is that I always seem to come around to a Chevalier book so I probably would have read it eventually.
Truth be told, this book started out rough and I might not have continued had I not felt obligated to finish it for book club. The first half of the novel chronicles the lives of James and Sadie Goodenough, a couple recently transplanted from Connecticut to Ohio where they are barely scratching out a living in the Black Swamp. Their lives are bleak. They’ve lost five of ten children to swamp fever (which I later learned is malaria). James is desperately trying to start a successful apple orchard in the stubborn swamp land. Sadie is beyond resentful of their situation and turns to strong drink to deal with her life. The children flit around their quarreling parents like little ghosts trying avoid their sadness and wrath. The only bright spots in their lives are visits from John Chapman (of Johnny Appleseed fame) and trips into town for supplies.
Just when I felt I couldn’t take James and Sadie’s depressing life anymore, the novel shifts focus to their son Robert. We learn he has left home for some mysterious, unspoken reason and has set out west to make his way in the world. This was just the shift and hook I needed to make it through the rest of the novel. Robert, while deeply flawed, was certainly a more sympathetic character than his parents and therefore easier to latch onto and root for. Furthermore, I wanted to discover why he had left his home and family so abruptly. Sadly, the answer wasn’t as satisfying as I’d hoped, but it was certainly dramatic!
In discussing this book last night, I came to understand Chevalier’s purpose in writing this novel a bit more clearly. Someone mentioned the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House books (set in the same time period) and the mythologizing and romanticizing of American history and this little epoch in particular – Westward Expansion.
Chevalier completely strips away any romantic notions about the people and the circumstances of this era. Maybe the people who headed west weren’t just daring adventurers looking for new opportunities. Maybe they were desperate people who had simply run out of options. Furthermore, things like alcoholism, rape, abuse , STDs and even incest were probably far more common during this era than we’ll ever know. This really resonated with me as nostalgia for a past that doesn’t actually exist is one of my biggest bet peeves. Now we know that even the beloved Little House books are a very glossy and rosy version of a pretty grim and gritty existence.
Once I wrapped my head around all that, I warmed to the book a bit more. And, truth be told, I find that happens a lot with Chevalier’s novels. She doesn’t make it easy for a reader, but she always makes you think and I can appreciate that.
A few more notes:
I hadn’t thought much about Johnny Appleseed since hearing about him as a kid so it was interesting to see him featured as a character in this novel and, of course, it made me want to know a little more about him.
Chevalier mentions that she was inspired to write about this topic after reading Michael Pollan’s book The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World. He explains that Appleseed was against grafting and so his apple varieties were not actually edible and best used for hard cider .
“Really, what Johnny Appleseed was doing and the reason he was welcome in every cabin in Ohio and Indiana was he was bringing the gift of alcohol to the frontier. He was our American Dionysus.”
The book also mentions Johnny’s vegetarianism in passing a couple times. I always find it interesting to learn about people from the past who eschewed animal flesh. That would have been such a radical concept in most eras and places and I imagine it would have taken a fairly unique individual to go against societal norms.
“One cool autumnal night, while lying by his camp-fire in the woods, he observed that the mosquitoes flew in the blaze and were burned. Johnny, who wore on his head a tin utensil which answered both as a cap and a mush pot, filled it with water and quenched the fire, and afterwards remarked, “God forbid that I should build a fire for my comfort, that should be the means of destroying any of His creatures.”
Another time, he allegedly made a camp-fire in a snowstorm at the end of a hollow log in which he intended to pass the night but found it occupied by a bear and cubs, so he removed his fire to the other end and slept on the snow in the open air, rather than disturb the bear” *from recollections about Johnny Appleseed collected by Henry Howe.
Title: At the Edge of the Orchard
Author: Tracy Chevalier
My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars