I have read several of Tracy Chevalier’s novels. Girl with a Pearl Earring and Remarkable Creatures I just loved. The Last Runaway left me cold. Her latest, At the Edge of the Orchard, falls between these two extremes.
The novel begins in 1838 and describes the Goodenough family trying to eke out a living in Ohio’s Black Swamp. A mismatched couple, James and Sadie, and their children try to claim the land as their own by planting apple trees but struggle with poverty, illness, isolation, and grueling work. Then the novel moves ahead fifteen years and follows Robert, the youngest son, as he escapes his dysfunctional family and travels west, making his way by taking a variety of jobs. Eventually he becomes a seed agent collecting seeds and saplings for export to England.
I found the first part of the novel the most interesting. It is narrated by James and Sadie in alternating sections so the reader’s emotions are torn between sympathy and disgust with both at different times. Their contrasting personalities are summarized in the kinds of apples they like: James wants to plant “eaters” which are sweet whereas Sadie wants “spitters” which can be made into cider and applejack. Their simmering hostility infects the entire family. Though the reader will shake his/her head at the behaviour of both, they are at least vital personalities.
This cannot be said of Robert who is almost totally passive; he is a solo wanderer who seldom makes choices, letting others steer his life. He likes “the familiar soothing sense of being insignificant.” Milquetoast best describes him. He knows how to nurture trees but he has difficulty connecting with people. Obviously his emotional issues stem from his upbringing and from a decision he made: “he knew he had made one mistake that he could never escape.” The reader learns the nature of this error only later.
One of the themes is the influence of the past. Robert carries around a sadness from a childhood trauma; he is described as standing “at the edge of the orchard, lookin like he would never be whole again.” He becomes known as The Tree Man, but sometimes there is “a sadness gnawing at him that even the trees could not assuage.” Eventually, of course, he does become whole again when he learns that “’You can choose to be different from your past.’” The image of new “shoots [springing] up from dead trunks” enforces this idea. Of course, because of his personality, Robert has to be told this lesson! His journey of self-discovery is just not convincing; he has to be told what he should have realized much sooner!
Martha, Robert’s sister, also changes but, again, her change is not convincing. She is told, “’You’re stronger than you think’” and then she adopts that phrase: “I know you must remember me as small and weak but I am stronger than you think.” Eventually the reader is to see her as having the strength of redwoods and sequoias: “It was hard to bring them down; even fire only made them stronger.” Unfortunately, her change is not effectively developed either because the reader sees her before and after but not the process that brings her from the past to the present.
The quilt as a symbol, used in The Last Runaway, also makes an appearance in this novel. There is repeated reference to a nine-patch quilt as a repository of memories: “Seeing the different squares brought forth a rush of memories. He sat for a long time, touching a bright blue square, a brown one and a dark green silk piece that was now frayed and threadbare but still the most beautiful patch of the quilt.” Robert must choose which memories to focus on and how to use them just as the quilt is used at various times in the novel to separate family members, to provide comfort, to torment another person, and to wrap a newborn child.
Another theme is the exploitation of the natural world. John Chapman (aka Johnny Appleseed) makes an appearance in the book, and he disapproves of James’ grafting of apple trees, something he sees as tampering with God’s creation: “Its [sic] up to God to improve the trees, he said.” Later Robert encounters men trying to make a California sequoia grove into a tourist attraction by building a hotel and other attractions and by naming the trees and hanging signs on them. When Robert finds another grove of sequoias, he decides to keep them a secret to prevent them from being “ruined with saloons and bowling alleys.”
Though it has its good qualities, this novel was just not a compelling read for me. At times, I felt manipulated by the author: she deliberately avoids revealing the motive for Robert’s leaving home and the identity of his visitor. It tries to be quality, interpretive fiction but sometimes just feels stagey.