At the Edge of the Orchard
“sometimes that’s what you have to do—go back to go forward.”
It’s too bad James and Sadie Goodenough didn’t have the wisdom of their youngest child, Martha. The challenges of moving forward to raise a family and an apple orchard in the Black Swamp of Ohio prove too much for them in Tracy Chevalier’s At the Edge of the Orchard.
After nearly a decade in the swamp, the Goodenough family is tired. Five of ten children are dead from swamp fever, mud covers everything, and James and Sadie’s war of eating apples versus cider apples is at a fever pitch. A disastrous camp meeting, followed by major illness and a visit from John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed), has left the adults of the family seething and the children frightened. One horrible night of violence sets their son Robert on the road westward, toward his own adventures.
As an unflinching look at the harshness of frontier life, At the Edge of the Orchard is a rousing success. There is not a drop of sentimentality in Chevalier’s prose, no romantic rhapsodies on the beauty of the earth or lovely sunsets. Instead the reader is thrown headfirst into the mud and death and offal endemic to frontier life.
The Goodenoughs stopped quite literally where they could no longer go on: a wagon mired in sticky black mud and balky animals were what chose their settlement. Chevalier paints a stark picture of threadbare clothing, near starvation, and the loneliness pioneer families faced. This is no Laura Ingalls Wilder world, full of hope and opportunity. “Thered been settlers in Connecticut [home place of the Goodenoughs] for two hundred years, and theyd been the ones breakin their backs to dig up the trees,” Sadie Goodenough muses. “[In Ohio] Every garden, every field, every churchyard and road had to be made by takin out the trees.”
A decade and a half later, when Robert is making his way west, things have improved little. Chevalier does a lovely job of sketching the mining camps and giant forests of 1850s California, and drops the reader right into a San Francisco that is wild and woolly, far from contemporary urban gentility.
It is only in her descriptions of orchards and forests that Chevalier allows a bit of light and beauty into the Goodenoughs’ lives. James is surprised by spring in his orchard: “The leaves on the trees had come out, small and new and creased like a summer quilt that has been folded away during the summer months and needs a day or two of shaking out to become smooth.” His late comparison between the promise of almost ripe apples and almost made brides is by turns poignant and crushing, given the nature of his bride. Robert makes similar discoveries and observations in his natural travels in California. These bits of light are few and far between, but they add leaven to a dark story.
Chevalier chooses to tell her story in a variety of styles, alternating between third person and first person narration and epistolary construction. This is not altogether successful, as some transitions are rough, but it does allow for short-handing some character development. Robert and Martha’s maturation from ages nine and seven, respectively, to their early 20s takes place relatively quickly in the span of their yearly letters to one another, allowing a story that takes place over a large number of years to be told in less than 300 pages.
Only Sadie’s point of view is presented in first person narrative. These are perhaps the most powerful passages in the story. Sadie is coarse and rather foul, a bad mother and a worse wife, but presenting her story in this fashion allows her a vulnerability that wouldn’t be obvious from the perspective of any other character. She demands sympathy, however reluctant, from the reader, becoming the most memorable character in the story.
And therein lies the rub for At the Edge of the Orchard. Between concentrating development on a single character and speeding up the growing-up years of Robert and Martha, there is very little room for any other character development in this story. Sadie is the most interesting person in the novel, and she doesn’t last long. Everyone loves Robert the best; that is made clear, but it’s never clarified why he is so beloved. As presented in the novel, he is insipid, rarely showing any gumption or bravery. Is malleability alone enough to entice love and devotion from others? It would appear so.
Though there is a surfeit of characters in At the Edge of the Orchard, none is particularly memorable. Martha makes a brief reappearance in Robert’s life, spouts a few pieces of wisdom (“It’s easy to know other people. Not so easy to know ourselves,” is particularly good), and is gone again; this is a pattern with all of the secondary characters. None appear to exist for any other reason than to make a few witty or sage remarks before their time onstage is up. Though this worked on the Shakespearean stage, it’s not effective in a novel, particularly in a modern novel.
As a look at the stark realities of frontier life, At the Edge of the Orchard is a lovely guide. Chevalier has clearly done appropriate research on the era, and she presents it well. Flat characters (aside from Sadie), however, make this book interesting only for that aspect. Going back, as Martha pointed out, is sometimes necessary to move forward, but Robert never really goes back, i.e. deals with the tragedy and privation of his past, so leaving the reader with little hope that his life will turn out any differently than his father’s.