Tuesday, March 15, 2016

At The Edge Of The Orchard: A Book Review

James Goodenough is a hardscrabble pioneer who loves his apple trees. Those trees he lovingly tends are his last connection to the family farm back east while he tries to carve out a homestead in 1840's Ohio. His wife Sadie is a hardscrabble farmer's wife who also happens to be an alcoholic, shiftless and lazy, and fiercely jealous of those apple trees.

Tracy Chevalier paints a clear picture of a family on the brink, battling against nature and each other. The parental dysfunction drips down to the four Goodenough children as well, a pack of near-animals who are made to bear the brunt of the work while their mother sleeps it off.

Just when you get to feel some sympathy for this sad clan, and manage to plow through the author's decision to present Sadie's POV through a first person narrative that lacks punctuation because she's illiterate, you see, uneducated and that's showing not telling, right? So you're settled in to their story, waiting like the Goodenoughs for Johnny Appleseed to pay them another visit, when the narrative is taken over by their oldest son James.

The story is not told in a linear fashion, jumping ahead in time as James makes his way to California with his narrative compressing a few years into a series of letters that are never answered. You'll turn the pages to find out why he's on the move, and what he's running from after he puts Ohio behind him.

Like any Californian, he re-invents himself in a career as a tree man, collecting specimens for the wealthy elites of England who are avid collectors of exotic plant life. Lingering in the back of his tale, however, is his deep dark secret, one that will not be explained until his sister suddenly appears in California, long after James game up on ever hearing again from his family.

There is tragedy but then there is triumph, and an uplifiting ending that ties up all the loose strings.

All in all, the novel is a pleasant piece of fiction with a cohesive story.

If only the author had seen fit to show Sadie Goodenough's lack of book learning through a means easier for the literate to read. There's something about stumbling through a character's thoughts when you know that shed is a storage building but for Sadie it's her version of she'd. The technique proved to be a distraction that spoiled the otherwise smoothly flowing prose.

Fans of Tracy Chevalier will not be disappointed with this latest release of historical fiction.

No comments: