Around a third of the way through Tracy Chevalier’s latest novel, At the Edge of the Orchard (The Borough Press, March), the narrative changes to a series of letters. The date on the first letter is 1st January 1840 and a young man, Robert Goodenough, is writing from the northern shores of Lake Erie to the family in Black Swamp, Ohio, that he hasn’t seen for years.
His spelling is poor despite his proud claim, “I hav lernt my letters”, and he signs off with a plea: “Yoo can rite to me I wate for a letter.” The letters continue, sometimes yearly, sometimes less often, but always dated 1st January. They are sent from Mishigin (Michigan), Indiana, Wisconsin, Missouri and Texas as Robert slowly travels west. His spelling gradually improves but his pleas for a letter back evidently go unanswered as the penultimate letter, sent from California and dated 1854, contains the heartbreaking line: “I guess by now you have long forgotten me, but I have not forgotten you.”
With beautiful economy these letters from Robert reveal both the vastness of the US in the mid-19th century, a land still to be tamed by the pioneers, and also what it meant to leave your own little patch of the world and journey into the unknown. But Robert has not left the bosom of a loving family to seek his fortune. At the Edge of the Orchard begins in Black Swamp in the spring of 1838, where James and Sadie Goodenough and their surviving children (those not picked off by swamp fever) eke out a living from an apple orchard. James, serious and patient, is devoted to his apple trees, spending hours tending, pruning and grafting to produce sweet-tasting “eaters”. Sadie prefers to get drunk on applejack made from “spitters”; theirs is a violent, destructive marriage.
Chevalier, a warm and friendly interviewee who has not lost her soft American accent since moving to the UK in 1984, explains that At the Edge of the Orchard grew out of some research she did for her previous novel, The Last Runaway, also set in mid-19th century Ohio. She was reading about Johnny Appleseed, a folk hero in the US, who introduced apple trees to parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. She was struck by the fact that you can produce either sweet apples for eating, or sour apples for drinking.
“Frontier life was so hard that most people just drank their way through it. I thought it was so fascinating that there are two uses for apples. I’d never really thought of it that way. Then [the story] just formulated in my mind: what if there were a family where the husband wants one kind of apple and the wife wants another? And that’s the representation of them not getting along.” She realised she wanted “to write about a dysfunctional 19th-century pioneer marriage”.
Johnny Appleseed appears in the novel (under his real name John Chapman); he regularly visits James and Sadie in the appositely named Black Swamp (“the last part of Ohio to be settled because it was so awful, and people mostly settled there because they were trying to get through to Indiana and they got stuck in the mud—I loved that idea”). He is one of the few people Sadie can stand, mostly as he is a means to provide her with the applejack she craves. As a mother she is neglectful at best and violent at worst, and the fighting—both verbal and physical—with her husband James will leave lasting scars on their children.
Chevalier says: “A friend of mine read [the novel] and said: ‘You know, without Sadie this story would be really benign.’ I always knew Sadie was going to be the way she was. I think I spent the whole rest of the novel trying to balance out how incredibly awful she is. And I thought, can I write a character who is really awful and yet you sympathise with her? I had a lot of fun with her.”
So Robert leaves his siblings behind (although we don’t discover precisely why until the end of the novel) and travels west. Migration is at the heart of the book, says Chevalier, who wanted to explore “the impetus to move west to run away from your troubles”. The west, specifically California, has been a pull for people throughout history, perhaps mostly powerfully during the Gold Rush. Chevalier says: “It’s the foundation of the American Dream . . . that idea that you can escape your problems and there is this opportunity to just work in a river and pick up a chunk of gold and make your fortune. Most of the guys who went out fully intended to go back east with all the money they were going to make and live a life of Riley but that’s not really what happened.”
Robert is briefly seduced by the Gold Rush but discovers his true passion is for trees. He finds steady work with English plant collector and amateur botanist William Lobb in California (another real-life character, he was the first person to introduce redwoods and sequoias to England), before the past catches up with him and he is forced to confront the reason he left Black Swamp.
At the Edge of the Orchard is Chevalier’s eighth historical novel. Her début, Virgin Blue (1997), was written after completing an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. It was sold by Curtis Brown’s Jonny Geller, then newly promoted to literary agent. But it was her second novel, Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999), which became an international bestseller and cemented her popularity both in the UK and in the US. She has never written a completely contemporary novel (Virgin Blue was half set in the present, half in the past) and admits she could be tempted to “crack that nut”.
She is dipping a toe in the water of “not-historical” with her retelling of “Othello”, part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project. It will be set, intriguingly, in a US playground in the 1970s and the characters will be 11-year-olds.
Hot on the heels of At the Edge of the Orchard is Reader, I Married Him (The Borough Press, April), a short-story collection Chevalier edited—“I can’t tell you . . . I’m so terrified of this spring because there is so much happening at the same time,” she jokes. Just over a year ago the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Howarth, West Yorkshire, contacted Chevalier with an irresistible invitation to help celebrate the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth: “I could not say no to that. It just sounded like so much fun.”
An Arts Council grant was secured to fund an exhibition, a series of events and a publication, which became Reader, I Married Him. Chevalier managed to amass a terrific list of writers to contribute, including Helen Dunmore, Linda Grant, Susan Hill and Lionel Shriver. The brief she gave them was to take the famous line from Jane Eyre and write a story about it. Some chose to retell the story of Jane Eyre from a different viewpoint, others chose to write about marriage more generally. Chevalier had a wonderful time: “It was a lot of work but I loved the editing process. I had so much fun batting the stories back and forth with the writers. Some argue over a comma and others just go: ‘Oh my god, this is so much better!’”
This article originally appeared in The Bookseller magazine of 8th January 2016.
Picture: © Jonathan Drori