At the Edge of the Orchard
Tracy Chevalier
The Goodenough family are not necessarily good enough for anything simply calm, or good. The father, James, can get in a snit, bust his wife Sadie in the chops, split her lip. So she throws an apple at him, and breaks his nose. Then she goes off to commiserate with her jug of cider, and ties on a big one. The five kids, as kids are wont to do, pretend it's all not happening.

And when all of the Goodenoughs go off in their wagon for the annual visit to Perrysburg, a few miles away, Sadie, the mother, gets carried away with the Baptist preacher, ranting:

    Where did you say He is?
    Right here with us.
    Does He ever leave you?
    No He does not.
    Is he in your heart?
    Yes He is.
    Is Her in your hands?
    Yes He is.
    No! You are in
    His hands . . .

Camping out that night, after her vigil for the Lord, Sadie ends up on the holy grounds with a man with a ginger beard "getting pumped," whatever that may be. Whatever it is, husband James turns vexed when he stumbles across the two of them there pumping away in the dirt. He kicks Ginger in the ribs, but the galoot is so drunk he rolls over, passed out - - - doesn't even notice that his moment of passion has petered out.

That's all right, Sadie will even things up when they get home again. James' pride and joy are his forty-eight apple trees, the ones he's planted and tended so lovingly. He gives them all the care that he isn't able to hand out to his wife and the five kids: watering the trees, grafting "scions," setting stakes around them to protect them from the marauding deer.

When he has enough money, which is rare, he'll buy saplings from the biennial visitor there in the Black Swamp, one John Chapman. Chapman, also known as Johnny Appleseed, makes the rounds in and around Ohio, carrying apple saplings and trees and seeds about in his double canoe.

James, being a suspicious sort, accuses Appleseed of googling his wife - - - no, not that kind of google, the other kind (this is 1838). He doesn't get it, that the old seed-seller is more interested in selling his wares than fondling the wives of his good customers. And Sadie, we are lead to believe, would not be disinterested in a bit of a fondle, but Chapman is a man of the Lord.

Once, when James and Sadie have a terrible to-do, she, out of her mind on apple cider, takes after one of his beloved Golden Pippin trees with a hatchet. James deflects her chop with his shoulder, and bleeding mightily, cut to the core, he falls back. When she goes for the tree again, he trips her and she turns and gets impaled on one of the deer stakes.

Life certainly gets raucous, if not fatal, there in Black Swamp, Ohio.

§   §   §

If nothing else, At the Edge of the Orchard does a bang-up good job of getting the reader wrought up in the first fifty pages. We have no doubts at all that life for the claim-jumpers in the middle west of the early nineteenth century was hard, brutish, and soul-destroying, what with the snow and ice, the thankless job of clearing stones and roots and fighting bears, skunks, and skeeters. To say that the Goodenough family system, not to say their environment, was just a touch on this side of murder might be an understatement.

The reader is quickly caught up in their wretched lives, pure nightmare exacerbated by the deadly, hopeless, poverty-stricken life on this blasted unyielding earth, five of the Goodenough children already laid in their early graves; the surviving five doomed to war from within and without. If nothing else, Chevalier knows how to paint doom and gloom with a dark if expert hand.

Most of At the Edge of the Orchard is about Robert, the youngest in the family, who soon enough escapes, thank god, to go west and become, like his father, a tree person. He will spend most of his time learning from one William Lobb how to identify trees which are collected, loaded up on ships in San Francisco, and sent back to England for rich collectors of greenery in that distant land. It doesn't sound like much of a plot-line - - - a tree-collector on his own out and about in the 1850s American west - - - but Chevalier is no slouch in plotting Robert's coming-of-age story. The people he meets ring true, like the self-sacrificing Lobb, and the traditional good-hearted whore who will teach Robert the ins-and-outs of the flesh.

Not only do we learn more than we might ever want to know about how to cultivate speciality trees for plutocrats back in England, we get a vastly comic scene of Robert being presented with a one-day-old orphan infant who will require him to learn, rapidly how to feed, clean, protect, and save the life of one scarcely out of the oven. Those of us who have gone through similar scenes day or two after the birthing of our own progeny can sympathize with the poor lad, although for most of us, thank god, at least we had a mother around to offer refreshment and available to take care of the important stuff.

It is the details of this story that make this book so fetching. It might well have been named The Tree Book, for not only does Robert learn new ways of love, and feeding hungry babies, but he becomes Lobb's student on any and all greenery. This is the day when Robert meets a new tree and Lobb at the same time, the one who will teach him and the rest of us much of what one should know if one chooses to be a tree people:

    Robert walked up the path, feeling as he did that he was shrinking into a speck beside the two trees. He put a hand on one to steady himself. The tawny red surface was spongy and thickly fissured, a fibrous bark that shed easily and turned into red dust Robert later found in his clothes and his hair, under his fingernails, on the back of his neck, in his saddlebags. The forest floor round the trees was thick and springy with thousands of years of rotting needles, muffling his steps. And it was quiet, for there were no branches anywhere near him to rustle in the wind. Branches only started to grow from about a hundred feet up, and the bulk of them were so high over his head that it strained his neck to look at them for long.

"Never call them redwoods," said Robert Lobb. "They're sequoias. Same family but different genus and species. They're wider but not as tall as redwoods. The canopy shape is different: sequoia branches are straight out, their lower spread out and then down."

Chevalier may be an expert on many forms of trees, growth patterns, seeds, foliage, but she strikes out on the occasional proper name. Like mine. I've been fighting my way through life trying to get people to not name me after a certain city in Italy. "Yes, Mr. Milan," they say. "What can I do for you?" "One thing," I offer, "is that you can call me by my right name. It's Milam. With an m. "Yes, of course, Mr. Milan," they say, "How can I help you?"

James and his fellows from the Black Swamp get stuck in the same bog.

One of the men in the circle James was hovering near commented, "Lost eight apple trees this winter."

Without thinking James said, "I lost nine."

"Four," another said.

"Two, but I've got my eye on a third that's still not blossomed."

"I didn't lose any. Luck, I guess. If there's luck in this swamp."

"What kind you got? Seek-no-further? Fall Queens? Milans?"

"No - - - Early Chandler. From back east. I grew it from seed."

"These apples are called Milams, idiot," I pipe up from the back of the crowd, right after James says his piece.

"It's the only thing that the men in our our family could do," I tell them. "In our canoes, selling spitter saplings to the men, googling the women."

--- Lorenzo W. Milam
For further information,
go to "The Milam Apple: Legends and History" at

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