I enjoy reading fiction that has to do in some way with horticulture or nature. Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior and Prodigal Summer are two of my favorites. The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall and The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin are also both really good. I’m not sure what you would call this genre, but I am always on the look out for this kind of book (Hint hint: any recommendations?) This led me to Chevalier’s “At the Edge of the Orchard”.
This is going to be a love/hate review. Part of the story was amazing. Part was insulting and made me uncomfortable. Part was just ridiculous. This does not make for an easy recommendation or a full-out condemnation. I’ll just try to break it down into its three pieces for the sake of clarity.
In the first part of the novel, Chevalier sets up the story which will inevitably be the journey of one member of an impoverished family in 1830’s Ohio. The Goodenough family is barely scraping out a living farming and growing apples. Having moved the family from Connecticut to a swamp in northern Ohio, the patriarch, James, is both frustrated and obsessed with establishing an apple orchard of 50 trees. The matriarch, Sadie, who hates the swamp, her husband, her children and life in general, self medicates with applejack hard cider. The two eldest sons are generally glossed over but hover somewhere in the mess. The middle daughter sulks, tattles and generally stirs up trouble. Only the youngest two children, Robert and Martha are drawn in any kind of sympathetic and multi dimensional way. Robert is intelligent, quiet and interested in the care and propagation of the apple trees. Martha is timid and nervous and the unfortunate scapegoat for everyone in the family. The internal turmoil within the family coupled with James and Sadie’s unfettered hatred of one another drown out almost everything in the story except for a few moments where James and Robert bond over the care of the apple trees.
The family name, Goodenough, may be a legitimate name to the period, location, etc but it is a an obvious hammer to the head here. Most of the characters are stereotypes and the attempt at using vernacular is pretty much insulting. It’s just bad. I nearly gave up reading the book a few chapters in. Thankfully, I didn’t because the middle of the book was very, very good.
The core of the story is Robert’s journey from Ohio to California. He flees his family while still a child and works his way across the country at various odd jobs, eventually landing in California. He becomes student and assistant to William Lob, a British man who combs the redwood forests for seeds and seedlings to send back to collectors in England. Robert’s love of trees, nature and learning is the true story here. Awed by the redwood and sequoia trees, Robert finds his niche. The detailed descriptions of the trees, the collecting of seeds and seedlings and how they prepare to send them on their long journey from California to England was fascinating. A colorful cast of characters are introduced to flesh out the story and their uniqueness and depth was welcome after the first part of the book.
Unfortunately, the twisty end of his story starts out okay but quickly devolves, taking with it the earnest young man in nature and replacing him with a clueless man-child waiting for the world to make decisions for him. The book is almost like 3 short stories woven together. The first is a terrible study in stereotypes. The second is a lovely coming of age story of a young man, traumatized by his childhood, finding solace and purpose in the natural world. The third is a man grappling with guilt and responsibility with mixed results.
I give the first part of the book a zero. The second part gets a 4 and the third a 2. It’s an uneven 2 or a 2 1/2. If it made sense to just read the middle of the book, I would recommend it wholeheartedly, but the beginning slog does set up what comes after so is important in that regard. This is the second Chevalier book that I have read and I do think she is a great writer. In trying to replicate a certain time and place here, she missed her mark and skewed more towards mockery than authenticity.