A historical period drama set in a location I've never read about before - The black swamp of Ohio - the very name oozes mud and drags you down into the mire, which is what happens to the Goodenough family when they settle there, attempting to cultivate an apple orchard in conditions you really wouldn't want to try and grow even a weed in. This is a grim and bleak place where the family are pretty isolated, relying on each other for company it's perhaps understandable that they become even more insular and fight amongst each other. Above all else this is a story of family but a family I really wouldn't want to belong to.
The first part of the story is told in the alternating voices of James and his wife Sadie and neither are at all likeable. James is a weak man with a temper thats slow to rise but explodes in violence every now and again, obsessed by his apple trees which are his true love, his family responsibilities come a poor second. When we change from his voice to Sadies, it's instantly apparent that she is poorly educated, her speech is peppered with slang and her grammar leaves a lot to be desired bearing no punctuation. She is the less likeable of the couple, addicted to the strongest home brewed alcohol Applejack she is at best slovenly, idle and sluttish - and that's when she's sober. When drunk she makes it her mission in life to goad her husband into violence - it appears that even a vicious reaction from him is the only attention she gets and therefore better than none and her family loyalties are almost non existent.
They have a bunch of children, many of whom die young from the miasmic and unrelenting swamp fever and the others are all very different to each other. Feckless Sal, is unfortunate enough to take after her mother most, there is cowering, mouse like Martha whose timidity provokes Sadie, to be an even greater bitch. Of the sons, eldest boy Robert is the only one whose story really develops and for whom I felt some warmth and empathy. He escapes the oppressive swampland after calamity befalls the family and makes his own way, travelling and searching for his place in the world.
He uses the tree knowledge taught him by James to good advantage and we follow his journey to California where he falls in with a tree specimen gatherer, William Lobb, based on a real historical character.
There is quite a lot of detail about arboriculture, from the cultivation of apple trees to the discovery of the huge sequoia trees yet the author manages to make this compelling reading rather than tiresome. The desolate location is mournful and claustrophobic yet expansive too, the characters in turns repel then fascinate and the shocking events within these pages, even though unexpected, almost seem inevitable in hindsight.
I was sucked into the black swamp from the first paragraph of this unique and absorbing tale and my destiny bound to that of Robert Goodenough as he searches for whatever it is that's missing from his life. I'd like to read more about what happens afterwards. Although I have no idea if the author plans a sequel, this intrepid novel well deserves a re-visit.
My thanks for my advance copy for review purposes go to Lovereading and the publisher
The Blurb from Goodreads:
From internationally bestselling author Tracy Chevalier, a riveting drama of a pioneer family on the American frontier
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.