At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier
Tracy Chevalier’s latest historical fiction is set in nineteenth century America, on the frontier of European settlement. Her stories are about anonymous little people set amid famous historic settings, and in this case the Godenoughs are a poor family struggling to survive in Ohio, and later in gold rush California.
The story is filled with authentic details, to the point it is painful. Faithful representation of the grueling life of poor farmers in the 1840s is not pleasant or romantic. Even the well off are helpless in the face of disease and accident, and the poor live on the edge of deprivation and even violence. Life is awful, and, unfortunately, many people are awful, too.
Against this harsh background, the story of young Robert Godenough’s travels are bittersweet. He is lucky enough to wander the west before it is spoiled, visiting the plains, deserts, mountains, and above all, the old growth forests out West before European settlements have overtaken them. That must have been something!
Chevalier writes tight prose, with just enough “period” language to make the point, but not overwhelming my twentieth century brain. The narration is actually quite understated, to the point where many of the characters are very difficult to decipher. There is much under the surface, and surely there is love and feeling here, though many of the people are loathe to reveal themselves. Given their hard life, this becomes understandable to us.
Once I got past the very grim events at the start—a bad childhood, for sure—the story moved along enjoyable (i.e., after the teenage Robert set out in the world). By the end of the story, Robert is grown up, and setting off into adulthood, in directions he never expected.
- Tracy Chevalier, At the Edge of the Orchard, New York, Random House, 2016.
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