“We werent livin with the land, but alive despite it,” observes reluctant pioneer Sadie Goodenough early in Tracy Chevalier’s newest historical novel, “At the Edge of the Orchard.” “Cause it wanted to kill us every chance it got, either the skeeters or the fever or the mud or the damp or the heat or the cold.”
Marooned in the Black Swamp of northwestern Ohio in 1838, Sadie and her husband James didn’t choose this land to settle. It chose them, when voracious mud ensnared their wagon’s wheels, making it impossible for them to continue further westward. Grudgingly rooted and resigned, the couple and the five surviving children of the 10 Sadie bore eke out their daily bread by trapping, hunting, gardening and painstakingly cultivating a small orchard of apple trees that, when they number 50, will stake them a permanent claim to the land.
James lavishes more care and love on the apple trees than he can muster for his own children. Carefully grafting the branch from one of his beloved Golden Pippin trees to the limb of one bearing more bitter fruit — confident that in time a better hybrid will result — James feels a sense of his own agency otherwise lacking in his largely joyless life. But Sadie hates seeing him squander effort and precious pennies on eating apples. She wants to commit their orchard to juice apples from which to make the highly potent applejack that has two therapeutic benefits: it not only repels disease-carrying mosquitoes, but it also numbs her lifelong shame as a promiscuous, perpetual outsider even in her own family. The couple’s ongoing and furious debate about what kinds of apples to grow — “eaters” or “spitters” — concentrates their deeper, more soul-ravaging disappointments and desires.
Alas, we learn more about the genealogy of the apples than we do about the psychology of the people growing them. Chevalier is true to the form she’s displayed in past books, adorning interesting historical facts with minimally sketched characters and the thinnest of plots. Fortunately, her prose is vivid and vigorous enough to compensate for these shortcomings. She does not allow her research to constrain her depiction of James and Sadie, who are violent, pained, and unsentimental. And though her portrait of a shambling but canny apple seedling vendor is barely even two-dimensional, Chevalier does at least avoid the trap of idealizing John Chapman, the real personage better known as Johnny Appleseed.
She’s less successful when it comes to Molly, the proverbial prostitute with the heart of gold that we meet in the second half of the book, which opens 15 years after the first portion. Warm, good-natured and nurturing, Molly is everything Sadie Goodenough is not. And for Sadie’s son Robert, who left Ohio and has been working his way steadily westward, that difference is both alluring and alarming.
Robert is a solitary man who shares his father’s love of trees. After working as a cowboy and panning for gold, he eventually settles in California where he collects redwood and sequoia seeds and saplings for a British naturalist — the also-real William Lobb — who sends them overseas to a nursery in England. His journey serves as the vessel for more exposition, this time about the size and scarcity of sequoias, the manic flare and death of the gold rush, the birth of what we now call “ecotourism” and the stench of San Francisco in the middle of the nineteenth century. Restless and haunted by a secret from his past that is strangely anti-climactic when finally revealed, Robert is more metaphor than man. He is the American pioneer, continually pushing westward, running away more than groping toward, fueled by loss but also by curiosity. And, of course, he is like the trees he harvests and resettles — a product of forced matches and migrations, made heartier by his travails.
Eight books and 17 years after bursting onto the historical fiction scene with “The Girl with the Pearl Earring,” Tracy Chevalier has neither advanced nor retreated in her skills or ambition. In “At the Edge of the Orchard,” she once again focuses on a narrow, almost pellucid slice of life, assembles a mix of invented and real characters, and strings them together on a sturdy rope of research. She trusts that our hunger to submerge in a different time and place will be enough to keep us turning the pages. And happily, she’s right.
Tracy Chevalier will be doing a reading at Brookline Booksmith on March 17 at 7 p.m.
Julie Wittes Schlack writes essays, fiction and is a regular contributor to Cognoscenti. By day, she leads the product innovation team for C Space, a Boston-based consumer collaboration company. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.