My aunt and I were reminiscing last week about some of the vacations that we took together when I was a child. My family didn’t have a lot of extra money to spend on exotic trips; our vacations were spent driving to various famous sites and national parks instead. We loved to camp, and many of my memories include picnicking beside waterfalls, sleeping in musty tents, and bear-proofing our food supply. Of course, our vacations were always more fun when my aunt came along. She didn’t have children of her own so we demanded, and got, all of her attention.
As I grew older, my enthusiasm for travelling with my parents waned. Vacations were still better when my aunt joined us, but I just wasn’t as content sleeping on the ground and taking long hikes through swarms of mosquitoes. I was a teen: I wanted to be with my friends. But staying home alone wasn’t an option, so I was dragged to places like the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Bryce Canyon Park. Terrible, I know.
Now arguing with my mother wasn’t a rare occurrence, but one such disagreement stands out particularly well in my mind. We were visiting Sequoia National Park and I was dressed in a tank top and shorts. Mom thought my outfit was inappropriate, but I thought I looked awesome. I won the argument, but as it turned out, I lost the battle. My skimpy clothing was no match for the shade of the massive trees and I ended up wrapped in a blanket the rest of the day. I looked ridiculous; my mother looked smug. I hated that.
Robert Goodenough, in At the Edge of the Orchard, can’t believe his eyes when he sees the giant sequoia trees for the first time. He had heard rumours about their sheer mass, but he didn’t think it was possible for trees to be bigger than the redwoods he loved so dearly. The child of an orchard grower, Robert is no stranger to trees—still the sequoias’ majestic power overwhelms him to the point of speechlessness.
It was the lure of the gold rush that had originally brought Robert out west, a trip he was more than happy to make in order to escape the tragedy of his past. Content with being alone, Robert takes a job collecting seedlings for a naturalist who sells them to wealthy Englanders. His travels up and down the coast on his trusty mare provide him with ample time to reminisce about the siblings he abandoned years before. His letters to them go unanswered, and Robert is left with only one possible thought: they didn’t survive what he was so quick to run away from.
Set over the course of twenty years in 1800’s America, At the Edge of the Orchard tells the story of a family struggling to survive the hardships of an unforgiving frontier and the son who left it all behind with the wild hope of finding something better. Alternating in narrative voice, it provides a glimpse into a time when every action—and even every word—held the potential power over life or death.
Tracy Chevalier is the bestselling author of Girl with a Pearl Earring. At the Edge of the Orchard is her eighth novel. Viking, 2016.