April 3, 2016

Review: At the End of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier

Title: At the End of the Orchard

Author: Tracy Chevalier

Publisher: Viking

Date of Publication: March 15th, 2016

Number of Pages: 289

Find it at: Book Depository


1838: James and Sadie Goodenough have settled where their wagon got stuck – in the muddy, stagnant swamps of northwest Ohio. They and their five children work relentlessly to tame their patch of land, buying saplings from a local tree man known as John Appleseed so they can cultivate the fifty apple trees required to stake their claim on the property. But the orchard they plant sows the seeds of a long battle. James loves the apples, reminders of an easier life back in Connecticut; while Sadie prefers the applejack they make, an alcoholic refuge from brutal frontier life.

1853: Their youngest child Robert is wandering through Gold Rush California. Restless and haunted by the broken family he left behind, he has made his way alone across the country. In the redwood and giant sequoia groves he finds some solace, collecting seeds for a naturalist who sells plants from the new world to the gardeners of England. But you can run only so far, even in America, and when Robert’s past makes an unexpected appearance he must decide whether to strike out again or stake his own claim to a home at last.


When it comes to historical fiction, Tracy Chevalier is definitely one of the authors that I particularly like. After reading novels such as The Girl With the Pearl Earring and The Virgin Blue, I anticipated eagerly her latest book, At the End of the Orchard. Indeed, this was the novel that I expected the most in March.

At the End of the Orchard told the story of James and Sadie Goodenough, as well as the story of one of their children, Robert. The Goodenough family was trying to survive the difficult conditions of the Black Swamp, where they had established themselves. One of the most important elements for their survival were the apple trees that they tried to grow, which were the pride of James. But there was a huge difference in opinion between the couple: James wanted to grow apples that were meant for eating while Sadie preferred the trees that grew apples for the production of cider and applejack. The other part of the novel followed Robert as he traveled through America, chased the gold fever and ultimately finding what he wanted from his life.

When we got to know the Goodenoughs, the relationship between James and Sadie was declining. I couldn't stop thinking that I was becoming the witness of a failing marriage, where both of them were completely unhappy. Their argument seemed to be only about the trees, but its roots laid deeper than that, in the Black Swamp itself. Sadie was the worst possible mother I've ever encountered in literature. She was headstrong and hot-blooded, saying things only to hurt James, acting without thinking and wondering about consequences. What she did in the camp, was unforgivable to me. But James was a likable enough character, although I'd like to see the tenderness he showed to his apple trees extend to his own children, as well. He knew that Sadie was miserable, but he didn't do a thing. I'm not quite sure though what he could actually say and not backfire. The characters of both of them depict on Robert's personality later on. Whenever he thought about his father, he was always connected to the trees, and especially those Golden Pippins he loved. But he couldn't even stand thinking about his mother, I can't blame him since the last words he had heard from her before leaving his home hurt him deeply and made him doubt his existence. Despite the trauma that he carried, Robert somehow managed to find himself and grow into a goodenough man.

At the End of the Orchard also had a great variety of secondary characters. First of all, the Goodenough children, from which Martha is the most important since she was closer to Robert. Despite her appearance, she was a strong woman. Another character that I really liked was Molly, the somewhat romantic interest of Robert. His relationship with her made him grow up, take responsibilities and think about the future. But Robert's new life wouldn't even exist without his employer, William Lobb, who offered him a job that he really loved.

With this novel, I was instantly transferred into the US of the Gold Rush era. The research that the author made showed into every detail of the life back then, as well as the descriptions of the sceneries that the characters moved. Moreover, the descriptions of all those apple trees and the grand sequoias were magnificent. It's no wonder that every time I was reading this book I wanted to eat an apple! I mean, how can anyone resist, while reading about apples that taste like lemon, and honey, and have an aftertaste of pineapple?

At the End of the Orchard is a great historical novel. The characters and the relationships between them are the central points of the book and the result is touching and heartwarming. It is definitely one of the most highly recommended books of the year!

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