John Chapman aka Johnny Appleseed is not the jolly young man we remember from childhood; he is a bit of a wild man, spending the year traveling via canoe around what at that time is wild territory, selling seedlings to pioneers and loudly preaching the word of God. Sadie looks forward to his visits because he brings apple jack; James buys seedlings from him, but doesn't appreciate John's dislike of grafting trees in the pursuit of growing the perfect apple. The stench of the swamp, the dreaded swamp fever that has claimed five of their ten children, the constant tension in the air...all make for an explosion just waiting to happen.
The story jumps into a series of letters from Robert, the youngest Goodenough, who leaves Ohio and travels West doing odd jobs. He writes letters back home for years, but never gets a response. The letters are a transition that at first feels a bit jerky, but soon makes a lot of sense, as the story moves forward 15 years. After reading the whole novel, I liked this method of transition, because it kept me wondering about why Robert left Ohio at such a young age (12!) and what happened to the family. Robert, most like his father in his love for apple trees and a talent for grafting, runs into William Lobb, an Englishman who is collecting seeds and seedlings from redwoods and giant sequoias to send to England. Finding in Robert a perfect partner, William sends Robert traveling through California in the waning days of the gold rush, furthering Robert's love of trees and the wonder of the majestic redwoods. Yet Robert's past is catching up to him...
I don't want to give anything else away, but the story does include another batch of letters, this time from a family member to Robert. He never gets the letters, but we travel back to 1838 Ohio, and witness what has become of the Goodenough family, and what happened after Robert left. I felt a big "ah!" reading this part of the novel, and it all came together. I have to say I finished the last page, and was surprised to feel a bit sad to end the story. The Goodenough saga was one of extreme dysfunction, abuse, betrayal, and bitterness. James and Sadie are awful to each other; it makes me wonder where the vicious cycle of anger and resentment began: was it because Sadie drank too much, or did she begin drinking because she felt ignored by James, who loved his trees more than anything else? Did James become more obsessed with his trees in order to escape Sadie, thus driving her to drink? Would their lives have been different if they had never left Connecticut?
I've left out some big bits of the story, but that is for you to discover. I found the apple tree cultivation to be very interesting, and the descriptions of the redwoods to be awe-inspiring. Tracy Chevalier perfectly conveys the awesome beauty of nature; it has the power to inspire, and the power to destroy. It can enrich our lives, or it can drive us mad. The Goodenough family experiences both sides of Nature.
Rating: 7/10 for a look at the struggles of farmers in early Ohio, establishing an orchard in an hostile environment, and a small slice of botany history. Some people may find the sudden change in the story line jarring, but I felt it worked for the story and kept me waiting for the inevitable return to the past and the Goodenough family troubles.
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