Clarence Henry White’s ‘The Orchard’
Clarence Henry White’s ‘The Orchard’ © Cincinnati Art Museum/Bridgeman Images

Ohio’s Black Swamp in 1838 is exactly as grim as that name and date might suggest. As Sadie Goodenough, disaffected wife of an apple-grower from Connecticut, notes of her new home: “It aint a name that draws you in. You get stuck there, more like — stuck in the mud and cant go no farther, so you stay cause theres land and no people, which was what we were lookin for.”

At the Edge of the Orchard, Tracy Chevalier’s eighth novel, is a densely packed tale of fruit, roots, family and hardship. Its arc covers decades, and crosses America and beyond, but the extraordinary Black Swamp is the locus of the story, and is where its early events unfold. Here, Sadie’s husband James can grow his apples undisturbed and the couple has room to raise a family — only to lose most of them to swamp fever.

James is, we learn, “a sensible man, but apples were his weakness”. At a time when sugar was an expensive luxury, a sweet eating apple, for James, is something to be craved “more than whiskey or tobacco or coffee or sex”.

Having left the family orchards out east, James grows his precious trees in land painfully reclaimed from the swamp, including a few that he has carefully grafted from a Golden Pippin tree back home, a variety brought from England by his grandparents. This rare fruit tastes of nuts and honey — but James has been told it is also like pineapple, though he has never tasted that rare delight. And the memories evoked by the smell and taste of the Golden Pippin are vital to nurturing his own core: “It reminded him of his mother and sister laughing at the kitchen table in Connecticut as they sliced apples into rings to be dried.”

Chevalier’s story begins with the volatile relationship between Sadie and James, a tension that grows with her increasing dependence on cider and applejack, the alcoholic by-products of the many sour apples (“spitters”). We read, in turns, the story from Sadie’s barely literate point of view, that of an unsympathetic and cruel woman, her character forged by circumstance; and a more conventional third-person view of James’s world among the trees.

This first part of the book is an intense and disturbing portrait of life on the edge — in all senses; it is vividly visual and reminiscent of the violent pioneer narratives that appeal to pampered modern sensibilities and that have become a favoured film genre (The Revenant, The Hateful Eight).

It is a long way from the genteel setting of Chevalier’s best-known work, the 5m-selling Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999), inspired by the 17th-century Vermeer portrait. This is the second of Chevalier’s recent works of historical fiction that has its focus in frontier life in her native US. She writes (on her website) that she had the idea for At the Edge of the Orchard after reading about 19th-century apple-growing in Ohio during the research for The Last Runaway (2013). That previous novel was the story of a young English girl who arrives alone in pre-civil war Ohio, where she becomes involved with the Underground Railroad movement to help escaped slaves fleeing north.

At the Edge of the Orchard has a less sweeping theme, focusing instead on the matters of family, roots and belonging. Leaving the swamp suddenly — it is clear something terrible has happened — the story shifts to 1850s California, and the adult life of the oldest Goodenough son, Robert. A loner who has drifted across the US, he eventually finds peace as a seed-collector among the silence of the state’s giant redwood and sequoia trees. “He would not collect cones here: the grove would remain untouched, as trees should be.”

We do eventually discover the truth about the mysterious events in the swamp, but away from that intense environment the story loses its way somewhat and takes some time to regain momentum. Eventually the change of pace begins to make sense within the book’s second, far gentler setting. It evolves into a satisfying example of what might be termed “hort-lit”: a narrative that is grounded in the natural world and its taming, for tourism and gardens as well as for the sustenance supplied by the Goodenoughs’ Ohio orchards.

Robert’s passion for collecting seeds grows under the tutelage of William Lobb, an (historically real) English agent tasked with finding and transporting exotic American specimens for the gardens of the wealthy back home. And by the end of Chevalier’s always-absorbing novel, Robert has come to terms with his own roots — and looks towards a very different (blossoming) future for his new family.

At the Edge of the Orchard, by Tracy Chevalier, Borough Press, RRP£16.99/Viking, RRP$27, 304 pages

Tracy Chevalier will be speaking at the Oxford Literary Festival on Tuesday April 5.

Photograph: Cincinnati Art Museum/Bridgeman Images

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