On Friday 4th March I had the pleasure of hearing Tracy Chevalier discuss her new novel, At the Edge of the Orchard as part of the Bath Literature Festival in the grand setting of the Guildhall.
From looking around, I must have been one of the youngest in the room – apparently it’s not the usual way to spend a Friday night in your early 20’s! Nevertheless, it was a lovely event to go to with my mum, who shares and ignited my love for reading. Tracy Chevalier’s discussion of the novel, together with her reading of an excerpt, were so compelling that I couldn’t resist buying a copy afterwards and queuing up to have her sign it for me.
At the Edge of the Orchard relates one family’s hardships in nineteenth century America. Tracy Chevalier takes us on a journey from the Black Swamp in Ohio where the, poignantly named Goodenough’s, settled after getting stuck in the mud (literally), to the mid-west just after the gold rush in California.
She paints a rather dark portrait of the American family. James and Sadie Goodenough’s relationship is just as sticky as the boggy land they’re forever trying to tame. A couple forever in battle, their struggle to see eye-to-eye is represented by the two types of apple grown in their orchard. Gentle James is devoted to growing and grafting ‘eaters’, sweet Golden Pippins which taste like ‘nuts and honey, then pineapple’. Whereas hard and fiery Sadie prefers the sour ‘spitters’ that fuel her Applejack addiction.
The Goodenough siblings are used as pawns in their parents’ emotional war and, even though James and Sadie’s toxic relationship occupies less than 70 pages, the remainder of the book explores the legacy it leaves on their children. Family dysfunctions is a major theme and examines how we deal with our past, whether we run from it or turn around and face it.
The second half of the book is devoted to their youngest son Robert’s journey across America after fleeing Ohio. Robert keeps travelling West at the height of the Californian gold rush until he reaches the pacific ocean and can’t go any further. The American Dream encouraged people to move away from their problems, like Robert does, until he is forced to turn around and go back, facing his past. Tracy Chevalier strives to dispel the myth surrounding the gold rush and the American dream. The Pioneering era promoted the idea that your life could be transformed by finding that one little nugget of gold, but in reality it was much harder than that. Few made their fortune, with many gambling or drinking away any profit they did make. She pointed out that the same desire still attracts people to modern day Hollywood as they seek to transform their lives with one lucky break.
On his journey Robert meets a tree agent, William Lobb, who collects saplings and seeds to send back to wealthy land owners in England. Trees are very much rooted at the heart of the book. Tracy Chevalier told us how she chose trees that anchored the two sections of the book – the domestic apple trees dominate the first half and the theatrical redwoods and sequoias the second half. The trees add to and echo the drama of the narrative, encouraging us to consider nature and our relationship with it.
Unusually for Tracy Chevalier, her new book is written mostly in the third person with only epistolary to give Robert and his sister Martha a voice as well as sections in the first person from Sadie’s point of view. The fact that the third person narrative at the beginning of the book is interrupted with snippets from Sadie’s perspective, reflects her strength of character (there was no way she could go without being heard!) and provides a glimpse into her complex and unstable psyche. Indeed the first half would be far less dynamic without her input.
It’s a very visual book and Tracy Chevalier’s descriptions are so vivid that, reading it on my daily commute, I was (gratefully) transported from a Great Western train to the depths of nineteenth century America. It is evident from the detail that it’s been meticulously researched, but in a way that feels organic rather than forced. Although fictional, you put her book down having gained a more intense insight into the era than any historian could give you.
If you’ve read At the Edge of the Orchard I’d love to know what you think – let me know in the comments below. If you haven’t, I’d definitely recommend reading it!