Chevalier taps into the struggles of a family scraping a living from the stubborn soil of the northwestern swamps of Ohio in a novel that spans 1838 to 1853. In 1838, the Goodenough family leaves New England, settling finally on the spot where the mud of the Black Swamp defeats their wagonís progress. Their plan is simple enough: plant a grove of fifty apple trees to legally claim the land. Using saplings and seeds purchased from John Chapman (the legendary Johnny Appleseed), James Goodenoughís passion is directed toward his fledgling orchard rather than his wife, especially the Golden Pippins he savors as the years of grueling labor pass.
Having birthed a succession of children to help work the land, Sadie Goodenough is worn thin by the trials of surviving in this muddy landscape. Once a happy young bride, albeit preferring Jamesí older brother, Charlie, Sadie takes pleasure now in a low-key war with her husband and his precious trees, especially the grafted ones he secretly tends with youngest son, Robert. She nurses her disappointment, feeds it in spates of destruction: ďShe did hold on tight to grudges. Indeed, she seemed to relish holding tight to them.Ē It is a life of few comforts, Sadie savoring the occasional Pentecostal revival and the few hand-delivered jugs of cider John Chapman brings to her on his visits. Cider is good medicine for swamp fever, the inebriation it brings a salve to Sadieís unhappy existence.
They are not a well-matched couple, the loss of one child after another highlighting the terrible toll of living in this unforgiving place. Jamesí fear of his wifeís growing hatred for his efforts reaches a critical point in chapters that alternate the narratives of husband and wife, Sadieís aggression sly and deliberate, her husbandís reaction no match for a rage that has been festering for years, exacerbated by the fermented cider. It is Robert who breaks from the familyís long tradition of hard labor and dissension, a boy who has adopted his fatherís love of trees and a reverence for their care.
The second half of the novel follows Robertís journey from the Ohio swamps and a circuitous route to northern California, where he is astonished by the size of the redwoods and comes under the tutelage of William Lobb, an Englishman who sends saplings back to his home country for those hoping to recreate the majesty of the giant trees on English soil. It is a world far from Robertís origins; he continues to write letters home in spite of never receiving a response. He is the child of dysfunction--and the tragedy that sent him away from home--his quiet ways born of a traumatic childhood that prepared him for hardship and extremity. Having grown up with brothers and sisters, Robertís solitary existence is in sharp contrast to his past, loneliness not an emotion he might claim until forced by circumstances. Still, he retains a quiet affection for his sister, Martha, the sibling most like him in temperament.
It is Chevalierís devotion to historical detail that imbues her novels with their distinct flavor, the immersion of character and surroundings, humanity caught in the tides of history. There is much information about the cultivation of apples throughout, the tending, varieties and affection of growers for their particular favorites.
The intimate perspective of this particular field not only explains a way of life but the shaping of the characters involved, like James Goodenough and his son, Robert, who share a love of these young trees pitted against an encroaching forest; Sadie, who thrives on hatred while numbing herself with drunkenness; and Martha, who quietly performs the chores her mother neglects. The deeper relationships evolve slowly, the dissolution of an unhappy marriage and a young manís quest for another kind of life near the towering redwoods and sequoias. Robertís history comes full circle in a moving drama that grafts old and new to forge a different future for a man on a quest.