Thanks to NetGalley for a review copy of At the Edge of the Orchard, which contains affiliate links at no cost to you.
I can’t remember exactly what nudged me to read At the Edge of the Orchard. I’m thinking it said it was a story about a family with all the turmoil that can entail. Anyway, it sounded like a good story — and it was.
James and Sadie Goodenough (yep) move from the east coast to Ohio’s Black Swamp (this is in northwest Ohio, only about an hour’s drive from where I live) in the 1800s. The Black Swamp is a rough place. Five of their ten kids die from the plague that descends every year. It’s hard to grow trees, and James is always under stress to make a go of the 50 trees he needs to establish to keep his land. Many of his seedlings are purchased from Johnny Appleseed (yep), who comes through regularly, rowing his canoe along the river.
Sadie is quite contentious. She is just a nasty person, to her husband, her kids, everyone. Part of that is just her personality, but it’s exacerbated by the applejack she is hooked on (I learned something new; applejack is a liquor made from apples). The family grows two types of apple trees — eaters and “spitters” (used to make applejack). The most prized apples are Golden Pippins, which James’ family grew back east.
The first part of the book is pretty much a downer, with the dying kids and Sadie’s antics. But after a really awful event (no spoilers), son Robert leaves and heads west to face life on his own, “losing himself in America.” I really enjoyed this portion of the book, as Robert mines for gold, crosses the mountains, and eventually finds his true calling — collecting seeds and seedlings to send to England. Yes, this was a “thing,” and I liked the way the author included real people in the story. William Lobb really was a seed/tree gatherer. James Veitch was really a collector of those seeds and plants. It was interesting to me that Wardian cases were mentioned often — they are seeing a resurgence today, and my daughter has one. Apparently, seedlings were often sent overseas in these cases for safekeeping.
Trees are a major theme of the book. There is much talk about seeds, grafting, and various varieties of trees. You spend quite a bit of time among apple trees, and later on, among redwoods and sequoias.
“Trees are ruthless. They fight each other for light, for water, for all the good things that are in the ground. They survive only when they have enough space between them.”
“(The trees) were not here to torment him; indeed, they were not here for him at all. James’ sitting under them did not matter one way or another, and for that he was profoundly grateful.”
“Prying out a stump reminded him of how deeply a tree clung to the ground, how tenacious a hold it had on a place. Though he was not a sentimental man — he did not cry when his children died, he simply dug the graves and buried them — James was silent each time he killed a tree, thinking of its time spend in that spot.”
Just a good, saga-style tale of a family and its connection — and all of our connections, really — to the trees around us.