‘At the Edge of the Orchard’ by Tracy Chevalier – Misfortunes and Frolics on the American Frontier

 

‘At the Edge of the Orchard’ by Tracy Chevalier    (2016) –   285 pages

 

$_1One of the mistakes that too many novelists make is to have all their choice villain roles filled by males.  The women are all too often depicted as wooden paragons of virtue.  This is particularly true of frontier novels where the family is already up against the harsh natural elements.  ‘At the Edge of the Orchard’ by Tracy Chevalier is refreshing in that one of its main female characters is unexpectedly truly nasty and vile in many ways.   That fact alone makes ‘Orchard’ an inherently more interesting novel.

I was a bit behind the times with Chevalier as I still saw her as an author of European novels like her ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ which is about Dutch painter Johannes Van Meer and the girl in his famous painting.  ‘Orchard’ is a novel of the American frontier which takes places in the 1830s and 1840s and 1850s mostly in Ohio and California.  It is a bit of a surprise for me to see her taking on the primitive rough simple lives of the early American pioneers.

I have found that Tracy Chevalier excels in character-driven story telling in her fiction.  This is the third novel of hers that I have read, the other two being ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ and ‘Remarkable Creatures’.  Part of that story-telling ability is that she gives her characters, both male and female, the freedom to misbehave.  It is always fun to read about obnoxious or frivolous people.

The characters in her stories make Chevalier’s fiction come alive.  Just like in Charles Dickens, we are given a wide range of spirited characters, some of them likeable and some of them despicable, all of them memorable.

In ‘Orchard’ we start out with a frontier family in the 1830s trying to make a go of it in the wilds of western Ohio.  They plant apple trees.  The family name is Goodenough which is such an eloquent name; I’ve known some Goodenoughs in my time.  The mother Sadie has twelve babies, seven of which die young from the various fevers and diseases.  John Chapman, otherwise known as Johnny Appleseed, visits their farm.

Later we go out to California for the gold rush with one of the sons, Robert.  At the point where he leaves Ohio, I was so fascinated by the Ohio story that I wished Chevalier had continued there rather than moving on to California.  Later, the California story also becomes engaging in its own right due to the offbeat characters.

I do believe that Tracy Chevalier has the gift of Charles Dickens for presenting a variety of colorful characters in all their charming and wicked glories.

 

Grade:    A-            

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2 responses to this post.

  1. I hadn’t heard of this one Tony. Like you, I’ve read just two of her books – Girl and Remarkable creatures. She’s not high literature but as you say she does do her characters well, and can spin a decent yarn around them. Interesting that this time she’s chosen the American frontier/

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    • Hi Sue,
      I did notice that her previous novel, ‘The Last Runaway’ also took place in Ohio.
      I compared Tracy Chevalier to Charles Dickens, because I don’t consider Dickens to be high literature either but he did have colorful characters and plots.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply

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