Wednesday, October 12, 2016

At the Edge of the Orchard

Tracy Chevalier has created a mesmerizing tale of a pioneer family on the American frontier. Their tree claim is a character itself, playing a large role in the thoughts of James and Sadie Goodenough. It is made up of eaters, sweet apples that James tends carefully as they remind him of his Connecticut upbringing, and spitters, the tart apples that get pressed into cider and from there into applejack, Sadie's alcoholic refuge from daily life in Black Swamp, Ohio. Their youngest son, Robert, is a tree man like his father. After some time spent telling us of James and Sadie in 1838 the novel switches to a series of letters from Robert to his brothers and sisters that span the years 1840 - 1856. During this time he moves from location and job fairly randomly. In 1853 he meets William Lobb and begins collecting seeds and saplings for him to send to England. We are then treated to a flashback to 1838 and the reason Robert left home. Next comes a series of letters to Robert from his sister Martha covering 1844 - 1856. The novel concludes in 1856 California.

The jumps in time are not confusing at all; they do serve to move the plot along. Chevalier has masterfully handled the letters sections to set apart great passages of time, giving depth to the characters in few words. Though the novel initially deals with a dysfunctional family it ends in hope, showing us it is possible to overcome your background. A luminous work.

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