New & notable book: Tracy Chevalier’s ‘The Edge of the Orchard’

International bestselling author Tracy Chevalier once again weaves historical figures into her new novel, The Edge of the Orchard. But the real stars here are the trees she uses to propel the story of a pioneer family trying to survive on the American frontier and their son who escapes to California.

“I have long loved trees,” Chevalier says in press materials, “and I’ve long wondered if I could include them in a meaningful way in a novel. Then, I read a chapter in Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire about apples and their significance during the 19th century, and it got me thinking ... I started looking into ways trees move around just the way people do.

“Apple trees are originally from Kazakhstan and brought west along the Silk Route. In fact, there are no indigenous apples in the United States; they have all come from elsewhere. California redwoods and sequoias have ended up in England because plant collectors brought them back and Victorian gardeners admired their exoticism and planted them. So, the movement of people has been mirrored by the movement of trees. I wanted to write about that.”

Her research including eating a “whole lot of apples,” learning to graft apple trees and picking apples. She spent time — in awe — among the giant sequoias in California and in the Black Swamp in western Ohio, where she has the Goodenough family settle in 1838 after leaving Connecticut.

James and Sadie hope to stake their claim to the homestead by growing an apple orchard. (They buy their seedlings from John Chapman, aka Johnny Appleseed.) A family feud is born when James becomes obsessed with sweet apples (“eaters”) and Sadie develops a taste for applejack cider (made from bitter “spitters”).

Their youngest son, Robert, leaves Ohio and his family behind and makes his way to California, where he finds peace and life’s work with William Lobb, a real-life English plant collector who’s gathering sequoia and redwood saplings to transport to estates back home.

“I like having real people in fiction,” Chevalier says. “They anchor a story and make what is made up feel more real. There: I’ve revealed a historical novelist’s trick.”

Celeste Williams

At the Edge of the Orchard

  • By Tracy Chevalier
  • Viking, $27
  • Audio: Penguin Audio, $40; narrated by Hillary Huber, Mark Bramhall, Kirby Heyborne and Cassandra Morris.