Book Review: At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier

orchard

Stirring depiction of pioneer life in 19th century America

About the Book

Description (courtesy of Goodreads): It’s 1836 and James and Sadie Goodenough have settled where their wagon got stuck – in the muddy, stagnant swamps of northwest Ohio. They and their five children work relentlessly to tame their patch of land so they can cultivate the fifty apple trees required to stake their claim on the property. But the orchard they plant sows the seeds of a long battle. James loves the apples, reminders of an easier life back in Connecticut; while Sadie prefers the applejack they make, an alcoholic refuge from brutal frontier life.

My Review

Divided into six parts covering the years 1838 to 1856, this was a slow burner for me. On the basis of part 1 – which is told partly in the third person and partly from the point of view of Sadie Goodenough – I wasn’t convinced I was going to like it. I found the relentless and deep-seated conflict between James and Sadie quite unsettling and Sadie’s first person vernacular (shorn of punctuation, particularly apostrophes) difficult to read. James comes across as much the more sympathetic character, although his single-minded focus on his apple trees plays a part in the marital conflict. However, part 2 which contains the seemingly unanswered letters from their youngest child, Robert, as he travels across America seeking work piqued my interest and by part 3, which covers Robert’s journey in more detail, I was definitely hooked. What came across most strongly from the book was the unremitting toil involved in eking out an existence in the American West at that time and the amazing strength and perseverance of the people who tried to do this.  Every aspect of life was a daily battle.

‘We weren’t livin with the land, but alive despite it. 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.’

The inclusion of real life characters and events added to its sense of authenticity and I suspect the tragic events that occur at points in the book are an all too accurate reflection of what life was like then. By the end I found myself completely immersed in the story.

I received a review copy courtesy of NetGalley and publishers, Viking, in return for an honest review.

Book facts: 297 pages, publication date 31st January 2017 (paperback), March 2016 (hardback)

My rating: 4 (out of 5)

In three words: Moving, authentic, tragic

Try something similar…The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

About the Author

Tracy Chevalier is the best-selling author of The Girl with the Pearl Earring, The Last Runaway and Remarkable Creatures, amongst others. She was born in Washington and studied English in Ohio before moving to London where she worked as a reference book editor. She completed an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia after which she became a full-time writer. Her next book, a reworking of Othello, will be out in May 2017. Author Website.

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7 thoughts on “Book Review: At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier

  1. Cathy, a brilliant review of an unusual novel. As you know, I’ve read the book and reading your post here I can’t help but nod and agree to so much. You’ve detailed the three parts well and are so right about the slow burn of the first section. I was wondering whether this was deliberate – in which case the author was very sure her writing would hold the reader’s attention. I like your summing up of: ‘What came across most strongly from the book was the unremitting toil involved in eking out an existence in the American West at that time and the amazing strength and perseverance of the people who tried to do this.’ The fortitude of the people is phenomenal and I can’t help but have massive respect for the pioneers of the time. I like your ‘try something similar’ suggestion and I absolutely loved ‘The Signature of All Things’. Another sweeping novel but less gruelling overall.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your kind words. Although her actions were pretty monstrous, I think Tracy Chevalier created a unique and distinctive character in Sadie Goodenough. I can’t quite decide if I’m sorry she doesn’t feature more in the book (even if I do wish she’d discovered apostrophes!).

      Liked by 1 person

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