Next week, Tracy Chevalier’s new novel At the Edge of the Orchard is published by HarperFiction. I’m delighted to post an extract from the novel as part of a Blog Tour to celebrate its release into the world. Here is a description of At the Edge of the World:
Ohio, 1838. James and Sadie Goodenough have settled in the Black Swamp, planting apple trees to claim the land as their own. Life there is harsh, and as swamp fever picks off their children, husband and wife take solace in separate comforts. James patiently grows his sweet-tasting ‘eaters’ while Sadie gets drunk on applejack made fresh from ‘spitters.’ This fight over apples takes its toll on all of the Goodenoughs – a battle that will resonate over the years and all the way across America.
California, 1853. Fifteen years later their youngest son, Robert, is drifting through Goldrush California. Haunted by the broken family he fled years earlier, memories stick to him where mud once did. When he finds steady work for a plant collector, peace seems finally to be within reach. But the past is never really past, and one day Robert is forced to confront the reasons he left behind everything he loved.
The extract comes from chapter one of the novel and the first part of it is told from the point of view of Sadie Goodenough.
Black Swamp, Ohio
I was used to his slaps. Didnt bother me none. Fightin over apples was jest what we did. Funny, I didnt think much about apples fore we came to the Black Swamp. When I was growin up we had an orchard like everybody else but I didnt pay it no attention cept when the blossom was out in May. Then Id go and lie there smellin some sweet perfume and listenin to the bees hum so happy cause they had flowers to play with. That was where James and I lay our first time together. I shouldve known then he wasnt for me. He was so busy inspectin my familys trees and askin how old each was—like I would know—and what the fruit was like ( Juicy like me, I said) that finally I had to unbutton my dress myself. That shut him up a while.
I never was a good picker. Ma said I was too quick, let too many drop and pulled off the stems of the rest. I was quick cause I wanted to get it done. I used two hands to twist and pull two apples and then the third would drop and bruise and wed have to gather all the bruised ones separate and cook em up right away into apple butter. Beginnin of each season Ma and Pa would get me pickin till they remembered about that third apple always droppin. So they put me on to gatherin the windfalls that were bruised and damaged from fallin off the tree. Windfalls werent all bad apples. They could still be stewed or made into cider. Or theyd have me cookin or slicin rings to dry. I liked the slicin. If you cut an apple across the core rather than along it you get the seeds makin flowers or stars in the middle of the circle. I told John Chapman once and he smiled at me. Gods ways, he said. Youre smart to see that, Sadie. Only time anyone ever called me smart.
James wouldnt let me touch the apples on his trees either. His precious thirty-eight trees. (Oh I knew how many he had. He thought I wasnt listenin when he was rattlin through his numbers but drunk or not I heard him cause he repeated himself so much.)
When we was married back in Connecticut he learned real quick how many apples I spoiled. So in the Black Swamp he got some of the children to pick em—Martha and Robert and Sal. He wouldnt let Caleb or Nathan pick, said we were all too rough.
He was like a little old woman with his trees. Drove me crazy.
James headed out behind the cabin, past the garden they’d begun turning over now the ground was no longer frozen, and out to the orchard. Upon settling in the Black Swamp, the first thing the Goodenoughs had done after building a rough cabin close to the Portage River was to clear land for the orchard so as to plant John Chapman’s apple saplings. Every oak, every hickory, every elm he cut down was an agony of effort. It was hard enough to chop up and haul the trunk and branches to set aside for firewood, or for making bed frames or chairs or wheels or coffins. But extracting the stumps and roots almost killed him each time he hacked and dug and pulled and ground. 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 senti- mental 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.
He stood in the melting March dusk and surveyed his orchard—five rows of trees, with a small nursery of seedlings in one corner. It was rare to see space around individual trees in the Black Swamp; normally there was either open water or dense woods. The Goodenough orchard was not spectacular, but it was proof to James that he could tame one small patch of land, make the trees do what he wanted. Beyond them, wilderness waited in the tangled undergrowth and sudden bogs; you had to take each step with care or find yourself up to your thighs in black stagnant water. After going into the swamp, to hunt or cut wood or visit a neighbor, James was always relieved to step back into the safe order of his orchard.
Now he counted his apple trees, even though he already knew that he had thirty-eight. He had expected the requirement for settling in Ohio of fifty viable fruit trees in three years would be easy to achieve, but he had been assuming apple trees would grow in the swamp as they had done on his father’s farm in Connecticut, where the ground was fertile and well drained. But swampland was different: waterlogged and brackish, it rotted roots, encouraged mildew, attracted blackfly. It was surprising that apple trees could survive there at all. There were plenty of other trees: maple was abundant, also ash and elm and hickory and several kinds of oak. But apple trees needed light and dry soil or they could easily not produce fruit. And if they did not produce, the Goodenoughs must go without. The Black Swamp was not like Connecticut, where if your trees had blight or scab or mildew and grew no apples, you could barter or buy from neighbors. Their neighbors here were few and scattered—only the Days two miles away had been there almost as long, though lately others had begun to settle nearby—and had no apples to spare.
James Goodenough was a sensible man, but apples were his weakness. They had been since he was a child and his mother had given him sweet apples as a special treat. Sweetness was a rare taste, for sugar cost dear; but an apple’s tart sweetness was almost free since, once planted, apple trees took little work. He recalled with a shudder their first years in the Black Swamp without apples. He hadn’t realized till he had to go without for over three years how large a part apples had played in his life, how he craved them more than whiskey or tobacco or coffee or sex. That first autumn when, after a lifetime of taking them for granted, James finally understood that there would be no apples to pick and store and eat, he went into a kind of mourning that surprised him. His desperation even drove him to pick the tiny fruit from a wild apple tree he came across along one of the Indian trails; it must have grown from a settler’s discarded apple core. He could only manage three before the sourness forced him to stop, and his stomach ached afterwards. Later, over near Perrysburg, he shamed himself by stealing from a stranger’s orchard, though he took only one apple, and it turned out to be a spitter rather than an eater. He ate it anyway.
In subsequent years he bought more trees from John Chapman—seedlings this time—and grew his own from seeds as well. Trees grown from seeds usually produced sour apples but, as James liked to point out to whoever would listen, one in ten tended to turn out sweet. Like growing anything in the Black Swamp, it took time for the apple trees to thrive, and even those that seemed healthy could easily die over the winter. While the Goodenoughs did have apples within three years of their arrival, they could not be relied on. Sometimes the crop was heavy; other times the apples were scarce and tiny. Sometimes disease killed the trees. For several years James struggled to get thirty trees to grow, much less fifty. More recently he’d had more success, and the previous fall had picked apples from forty-seven trees. Over the winter, however, it appeared nine had died, like a punishment for his hubris.
Luckily no one ever came around to count how many trees they had, as it was too hard to get in and out of the Black Swamp for law officials to bother. None of his few neighbors seemed concerned about the fifty-trees rule. Sadie was amused by the number, and enjoyed taunting her husband with it. Sometimes she would whisper “fifty” to him as she passed. But James fretted over it, always expecting someone to show up on the river or along one of the Indian trails that crisscrossed the Black Swamp and inform him that his farm was no longer his.
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For other stops on the tour, just take a look at the poster below.