James and Sadie Goodenough are stuck; figuratively and literally stuck in the Black Water Swamp of Ohio. Settlers from Connecticut, they head west in the 1830s with their children in a wagon. The wagon gets stuck in the mud of the swamp, near Perrysburg, Ohio. There, James and Sadie remain, until the day they die.
At the start of the story, 1838, the Goodenoughs have already lost 5 children from swamp fever. All but their son, Robert, have suffered from the swamp fever. It is a hard existence, made all the harder by the temperaments of Sadie and James. A dysfunctional family, James is quick to use the switch on his children, and the back of his hand on Sadie. Sadie provokes him, which does not make it right, but, she is downright mean and will sit and watch her children being beaten for something she herself has done, with a smirk on her face.
The Goodenoughs settle in the Black Water Swamp and set to raising apples. James adores the “eaters”, while Sadie craves the “spitters” – or, rather, she craves the apple jack made from the “spitters”. The apples are at the core of their hatred for each other and are the seeds of their bitterness. Life at the Goodenoughs is hard and dark and often unbearable. For Sadie, the infrequent visits of a John Chapman are the only bright spots in her life. Chapman stops by several times a year with apple saplings and seeds, and to take the “spitters” to be pressed for cider, which is used to make apple jack. Chapman is more commonly known as Johnny Appleseed.
So goes the first part of this book, told in the voices of Sadie and James. It is at times difficult to read and so full of darkness that one can almost feel the despair of the Black Water Swamp. One might say the Sadie drowns her difficult life in the apple jack, but, there are hints that she brings other issues to the Goodenoughs and I found myself wondering why they ever married each other in the first place. The first part ends in unbelievable violence, in the apple orchard. All of the living Goodenough children are in the orchard, and it is there that the author leaves them, taking us to the second part of the book, told in the voice of Robert, the favored son.
We follow Robert across the prairies, the mountains, the Gold Rush – and eventually to Northern California. Robert writes home to his siblings still living, he assumes, in the Blackwater Swamp, near Perrysburg, Ohio, asking them how they are, have they survived episodes of swamp fever, and he asks for them to write back at various addresses he gives them. Robert eventually ends up in the Redwood forests, under the great sequoia, collecting seeds and saplings for a company in England. Robert is back in an orchard, though a much different kind.
The third part of the book brings surprises in the form of two women and some gentler, kinder characters as Robert suddenly finds himself face-to-face with his Ohio past.
“The Edge of the Orchard” had me spellbound, even in the hard, dark times of the story. Sadie was as bitter as the “spitters” she craved and James was hard and selfish. Both were as stuck in their anger toward each other as they were in the Black Water Swamp. The historical aspects of the story fascinated me. While I knew a bit about John Chapman and how apples were planted in part of the eastern United States, I did not know much about the redwoods and the sequoia in the west, or of the plant trade between the States and England. I found this section fascinating.
It was also surprising for me to find such a large part of this novel written around Perrysburg, Ohio. My mother-in-law grew up on a farm not far from Perrysburg, and would talk about her early life on the farm, which was closer to a much smaller town. I did not know about the Black Water Swamp. Chevalier’s book had me on an adventure reading up on the Black Water Swamp, and then reading more on the sequoia.
“The Edge of the Orchard” had me, at times, on the edge of my seat, or, more accurately, sitting in my car listening to the audio of this book. I think that reading this book via a recording made it a bit easier. At least it did in hearing the voices of the main characters. This book was spellbinding; another notable book from Tracy Chevalier, who wrote “The Girl With the Pearl Earring”.
Have you read anything by Ms. Chevalier?