Apples are one of the most popular fruits around the world, abundantly grown in a variety of places and climates. After reading At the End of the Orchard, I know there are basically two types apples (despite the countless varieties): spitters and eaters. Eaters are the sweeter varieties, that are eaten, baked, or are great for applesauce. Spitters are the more bitter varieties that can be used for ciders. Tracy Chevalier’s story focuses on one family who make their way into the Black Swamp, which covers part of northern Ohio and Indiana, near Lake Erie. Coming from Conecticut the family clears land to start an apple orchard.
James and Sadie Goodenough take their 5 children on this journey in 1838, years before roads would be built, and railroads would be able to take settlers west. The area is unsettled, rough, and lawless. It’s a journey that Sadie doesn’t want to take. Life has not been easy for their family, and it only gets harder when they arrive in the swamp. They can’t afford to purchase the land they settle on, and are squatters. They have to make this work in order to make any kind of claim to the land. And though they have 5 children to care for, and James is completely commited to the land and the family, it seems that Sadie is not, and regularly overindulges in applejack cider.
Things are rough for them, and don’t exactly go well. The second part of the story follows their youngest son, Robert, as he leaves the Black Swamp. He’s relatively young (it’s not clear how old he is – maybe 12 or 13), and travels around the Midwest doing a series of odd jobs, before heading to California as a part of the Gold Rush. He is untethered, and travels around the region. He starts working for a man named Mr. Lobb. It’s through him that he gets back in touch with “his roots”. Mr. Lobb is a tree harvester – sending tree samples like the giant California Sequoia to England, to be grown in some of the extravagant gardens of the wealthy. Through this, he is finally able to understand his father’s connection to the land.
This is the best book I’ve read all summer. It was so good (and so short) that I gobbled it up in one day. Granted, that day I was riding in a car on the way back from our vacation in Florida. Through this book, I was able to learn more about apples than I ever thought I would. And I actually found it so interesting. I rarely read historical fiction, but this had a lot of history, and I actually loved that too. Chevalier is also the author of The Girl with the Pearl Earring, which is equally great.