Monday, December 11, 2017

At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier

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 spent in that spot. He never did this with the animals he hunted - they were food, and transient, passing through this world and out again, as people did. But trees felt permanent - until you had to cut them down.
The Goodenough family leaves their home in Connecticut for the promise of land and space in Ohio. Instead, they find swampland-damp, barren, and lonely. The novel follows the parents, James and Sadie to Ohio, then their son, Robert, as he forges farther West. Ohio homesteading is brutal; children are lost (to malaria? I think?) each fall, the winters are long and cold, and the land is unforgiving. Through it all, though, it's hard to feel sympathy for Chevalier's characters. James is obsessed with his apple orchard, Sadie is a cruel drunk. Neither seems particularly preoccupied with the work of raising children or of caring for one another. This may be a fairly accurate portrayal of homesteading in the 1800's, but it made for some rough reading.

Chevalier anchors the text in the flora of the Ohio swamps and Northern California, so much so that the trees feel like primary characters. There are James' apple trees, brought over first by ancestors from England, then by James and Sadie to Ohio, and Robert's giant sequoias, towering over the Sierra foothills. Her best writing is about landscapes and nature and how humans move through and within them. Robert and James, neither of them particularly competent at human relationships, are able to form deep, engaging partnerships with their trees; Chevalier writes those connections almost more compellingly than she does human ones.

There's a lot going on here. Chevalier weaves in a variety of narrators and voices and jumps forwards and backwards in time, but it doesn't always feel as seamless as it could. The second half of the book moves quickly and builds suspense well, but the first half was so rough that I had trouble investing. Robert ends up making it worth your while, and the twists and turns at the end are definitely exciting, but the book felt uneven--the pacing, the characters, the tone.

No comments: