What We Thought: It is 1838 and the Goodenough family have been working the difficult land at Black Swamp, Ohio for almost a decade. They must create an orchard of fifty trees to stake their claim over their patch. The apple trees they grow are partly ‘spitters’ used for making cider and partly delicious ‘eaters’. James Goodenough is a taciturn man who works hard and loves his trees. His wife Sadie is a raucous drunk who cares only that the spitters can provide her with cider and applejack. Many of their children have died of the swamp fever that comes around each year. Those left are divided in their loyalties between their father and mother, though most of the time there is little love evident from either parent.
Into this dysfunctional household comes occasionally a real historical character, John Chapman, known as Johnny Appleseed. Appleseed sells saplings and seedlings and disagrees with James Goodenough’s ideas on grafting believing it’s interfering with nature. Sadie enjoys his company and the applejack he brings.
The story of this family is told through a variety of voices one of which is the youngest son Robert’s. Robert has left home for unspecified reasons and travels west picking up odd jobs until he meets William Lobb, a seed agent (and another real historical character). Once again trees, this time giant sequoias and redwoods, enter the tale. Robert has a secret which is not revealed until well into the novel and his desertion of home stems from this traumatic incident in his childhood. When this event is finally revealed it is both shocking and inevitable.
The writing is superb, of course, being at times lyrical and at times gritty. The characters are well drawn, particularly James and Sadie, opposites determined to fight to the bitter end, yet sometimes strangely loyal. Information about trees is presented in a fascinating and never stodgy manner and the hardships of the period are shown realistically. A wonderful book which I got free from NetGalley in return for an honest review.
You’ll enjoy this if you like: Accounts of harsh lives with not always happy endings.
Avoid if you dislike: Accounts of bad parenting.
Ideal accompaniments: A draught of hard cider.
Genre: Literary/Historical Fiction