Published: March 15, 2016
Genre: Historical Fiction (mid-19th Century Frontier America)
Source: Penguin's First to Read Program
You might enjoy this book if you like: Stories about dysfunctional families, the legend of Johnny Appleseed, stories about Pioneers, other books by Tracy Chevalier
1838: James and Sadie Goodenough have settled where their wagon got stuck – in the muddy, stagnant swamps of northwest Ohio. They and their five children work relentlessly to tame their patch of land, buying saplings from a local tree man known as John Appleseed so they can cultivate the fifty apple trees required to stake their claim on the property. But the orchard they plant sows the seeds of a long battle. James loves the apples, reminders of an easier life back in Connecticut; while Sadie prefers the applejack they make, an alcoholic refuge from brutal frontier life.
1853: Their youngest child Robert is wandering through Gold Rush California. Restless and haunted by the broken family he left behind, he has made his way alone across the country. In the redwood and giant sequoia groves he finds some solace, collecting seeds for a naturalist who sells plants from the new world to the gardeners of England. But you can run only so far, even in America, and when Robert’s past makes an unexpected appearance he must decide whether to strike out again or stake his own claim to a home at last.
This one is a toughie for me. This was a book that was just....fine. I can't say that it was what I would consider an entertaining read and I'm not sure how often I would recommend it, but I really can't point to anything wrong with the book.
I will admit that I haven't had much luck with Tracy Chevalier in the past. I've read a couple of her earlier books and, honestly, I felt the same way. However, I have friends who really adore her so I'm more than willing to chalk this up to the idea that she is an author who just doesn't "work" for me. So, with that in mind, I'm going to try to review this book as objectively as possible.
There are two narratives going on in this book. The first is with the Goodenough family (which, by the way, is a fantastic name) in the Black Swamp on the frontier in Ohio. The patriarch, James, is trying to start an apple orchard with starts his family brought over from England, grafted to trees purchased from a man named John Chapman, better known to history as Johnny Appleseed. James and his wife, Sadie, have anything but a happy marriage and Chevalier does not hold anything back in showing how miserable these two people are.
The second narrative involves Robert, James and Sadie's son, who left the family home and ventured the frontier, ultimately ending up in San Francisco, where he finds work collecting trees to send back to England. Chevalier's account of his travels are abbreviated until he arrives in C alifornia, which I found frustrating because it seemed to me that what happened to him before that was far more interesting.
All the characters in the book were interesting on a superficial level, but Chevalier never seems to go much deeper than that. I was searching for something in both James and Sadie to help me feel something other than revulsion for them...and I never found anything too intriguing about Robert to care much about what happened with him. The one character I did like, the plucky Molly who Robert first meets in Texas and then again in California, isn't really given her due. Honestly, I'd rather have had an entire book from her point of view than one about any of the Goodenoughs.
As I said, I think it comes down to the fact that Tracy Chevalier isn't an author I have much luck with. If you are a fan of hers, I would highly recommend this book. However, I'm not sure I would recommend it anyone else.
I received an electronic copy of this book in return for an honest review. I received no other compensation for this post.