The landscape changes us. It redefines not just our relationship to the daily grind of our lives, but to one another. The dirt can be rich and giving, or it can try to kill us. Or both. In 1838, James Goodenough escapes from one green hell; trapped on a family farm back east with too many people and not enough work – to make his life another. Black Swamp Ohio has plenty of green, but more mud. Goodenough brought his mismatched wife, Sadie with him, and if their life is not hell, it’s not up to the kindness, if any implied by daily grind.
In Tracy Chevalier’s new historical novel, At the Edge of the Orchard, we meet the Goodenoughs hip deep in mud and misery. James Goodenough might be able to find happiness in his apples, but his wife Sadie is not disposed to happiness. She’s good at drinking and sex, but beyond that her attention wanes. Only one son, Robert shows much ability to acclimatize. And out West, there are trees that are as yet undreamed of.
Chevalier writes a compelling and concise historical novel, with an artfully arranged plot that creates real tension and suspense. As if this weren’t enough in itself, she also manages to create one of the most unique and memorable character voices in recent times, that of Sadie Goodenough. Sadie is a bad wife and a bad mother, but the portions of the novel written in her first-person voice will make you want to read them aloud. they are every bit as delicious as are Chevalier’s descriptions of apples, trees and problems of a dysfuctional marriage on the American frontier.
Chevalier mixes in figures from history; a decidedly un-Disneyfied Johnny Appleseed and the less-well known but equally important William Lobb. Both are great fun to be with, even when the going gets tough – and rest assured, it does, even though the Goodenoughs are unable to go anywhere. And if you finish this book in what feels like an eyeblink, the images Chevalier creates will linger long after. In At the Edge of the Orchard, you can immerse yourself in a world build of mud, sweat and trees that beggar the imagination. As the land changes these characters who fight it, you might for a moment see yourself, in this landscape now, and wonder just how it is changing you.
Let me thank at this moment, Alex, Tracy Chevalier’s driver, who helped get me to the station on time and lingered long enough so that I could do the usual two interviews with Tracy Chevalier. And as for the author; you can hear how generous she is with those who speak to her. She’s obviously brilliant, well-studied and yet so down-to-earth. She’s a best-selling superstar, but you feel like you’re getting a kitchen-table-cup-of-coffee conversation.
Or you can just listen here:
Or you can just listen here: (No coffee required, maybe a glass of cider instead!)