New historical fiction from Tracy Chevalier

Tracy Chevalier’s latest book At the Edge of the Orchard is set in the 1830’s and 1850’s in Ohio and California. One of the reasons that I like to read historical fiction is that I learn new things. And I learned new things about apple trees, redwoods, sequoias, and the real life people--Johnny Appleseed, William Lobb, and Billie Lapham from At the Edge of the Orchard. The fictional Goodenough family, consisting of parents James and Sadie and their 9 children, left Connecticut for a new life in the West. They got to northwestern Ohio where they bogged down in the mud of the Black Swamp and settled there. James wanted an orchard and brought along branches from his family’s Golden Pippin apples which he grafted onto other apple trees. But this is not an inspiring story of frontier hard work and resilience. Sadie was disagreeable, vindictive, lazy, and drank too much applejack. The family was plagued by swamp fever and the deaths of half of the children. The story centers around two of the surviving children, Robert and Martha. Robert leaves home as a child, and the tragedy that made him leave is only revealed later. Robert eventually ends up in California in the 1850s and finds work as a plant collector for William Lobb including collecting sequoia seeds and seedlings from the property of Billie Lapham. Plants, seeds, and seedlings--especially redwoods, sequoias, and pines--were collected and sent to wealthy estates in England. At the end of the story, Martha is reunited with Robert with both sadness and hope for the future. At the Edge of the Orchard is a good choice for anyone who likes historical fiction.

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