Fresh Air, the NPR interview show hosted by Terri Gross, is typically engaging and interesting, so I tend to listen in. Recently, they did an interview with Tracy Chevalier, author of Girl With A Pearl Earring (which I have not yet read) about her new book, At The Edge Of The Orchard, about a family that moves from Connecticut to northwestern Ohio (the Black Swamp) to try to carve out a life. Tracy read from the book, particularly a section from the mother character, Sadie Goodenough, which was reminiscent of Faulkner (due the voice and use of dialect) and altogether intriguing.
The Amazon Kindle is a wonderful device. At a stoplight, I dug the Kindle out of my briefcase (well, backpack, actually) and ordered the book. Without thought, I raced through this small marvel in two bedtime reading sessions and one postprandial stint. It was that readable, that interesting, and that well written.
Sadie and James Goodenough take off from Connecticut (he not being the first-born son, she “needing” to be married off) and end up in Ohio, near Perrysburg, Ohio along the Maumee River south of Toledo. This area, known as Black Swamp in 1830s Ohio, is a tough place to make a living and the Goodenoughs work like animals and suffer disease and the deaths of many of their children. For James, the only saving grace is the ability to plant an orchard of his beloved Golden Pippen apples – a task taking the lion’s share of his time and attention. His children, but most of all his wife, suffer from this lack of attention. Sadie only has the time of day for apples that can be tuned into hard cider, or applejack, to which she has developed a powerful thirst. But she has taken a powerful liking to the itinerant apple seed and tree salesman, John Chapman, who wanders by a few times a year. James is a single-minded fanatic, Sadie a disappointed and unhappy drunkard and the children (who do a lot of the work) take the brunt of being in the middle. Without being a spoiler, it is safe to say that this does not work out well for everyone.
For reasons that will be later explained, the eldest son, Robert, heads west, ultimate landing in California where he meets up with William Lobb – an employee of Kew Gardens in London – and learns how to be a searcher and finder of seeds, saplings, and flowers for the wealthy gardeners of England as well as his own person. Robert's adventures getting from Ohio to California are elucidated via a series of letters he writes to his sister, Martha. It is a fascinating look at the development of boy into man, as well as uneducated to better educated. It is also a really interesting window into the types of work that might be found by a young man trying to make the trip West.
By the way John Chapman (aka Johnny Appleseed) and William Lobb are real historical figures and Chevalier weaves their reality into her story with an ease that is wonderful to observe. You will learn about redwoods, sequoias, and conifers in addition to apple trees. Chevalier weaves in (so quietly) the beginning of the exploitation of the natural resources of California, from mining gold, to tourist attractions being built around the Sequoia groves.
Chevalier also has a touch with characterization that is really a delight. You get to know the essence of Sadie in only a few paragraphs and you can decide if you like this character or not. James is made clear by having him express his thoughts and by where his attention is focused. It is a deft, subtle hand at work here. The heartaches and tragedies of carving a living out of the wilderness are made know in whispers, not shouts. Nothing is shouted, most is muted. At yet, at the end, you find you have finished the novel and do not know where the time went because you were so engrossed. What a treat.