In her new book, At the Edge of the Orchard, Tracy Chevalier explores the complexities of family relationships and the hardships of pioneer life in 19th century Ohio and California. In 1838, James and Sadie Goodenough tend their struggling apple orchard in the Great Black Swamp of northwestern Ohio. Eventually, their simmering hostility erupts into an unknown act of violence (not fully revealed until the second half of the book) that compels their youngest son, Robert, to travel west to look for work. Robert’s story, which forms the second half of the novel, covers two decades and most of the continent. In the late 1850s, still haunted by his troubled childhood, Robert is working with a botanist named William Lobb (a real historical figure) to collect sequoia seedlings for British enthusiasts. This section helps highlight Chevaliers meticulous historical and biological research.
Although their dialogue is well-written, Chevalier’s choice of narrators weakens the book. Robert’s character is directionless. The welcome late addition of a spunky love interest and a long-lost sister (both pregnant) helps enliven the plot, even as the plot itself becomes increasingly ridiculous. The book would have benefited if either woman had been given more attention.
Review Submitted by: Kaitlyn Grigsby
Challenge: Book published in 2016