Spanning 15 years and a journey from the Black Swamp of northeastern Ohio to California’s redwood forests, Chevalier’s (The Last Runaway, 2013, etc.) latest draws readers into the simple highs and the frequent lows of 19th-century pioneer life.
When it comes to apples, James Goodenough “craved them more than whiskey or tobacco or coffee or sex.” His supplier of seeds and saplings, John Chapman (the real-life Johnny Appleseed) provides trees, applejack, and life-saving wisdom for the Goodenough family. After nine years (and five deceased children) in the Black Swamp, John and his wife, Sadie, are at odds, he preferring to grow sweet apples, or “eaters,” she preferring to grow sour apples, or “spitters,” that can be made into cider and applejack. Sadie’s mean streak and taste for alcohol drive the family to a breaking point before the narrative skips ahead to their youngest son Robert’s solo journey across the West. The strongest part of the novel, which depicts the crackling rage and poignant struggle of the Goodenough’s swamp-orchard life, comes to an end too soon, and readers are catapulted onto the road with Robert before it’s made clear why he left home. Separated by a series of letters Robert writes home to his siblings, the Ohio and California portions of the novel seem almost to be two different books. The relief of Robert’s escape from a dysfunctional childhood is contrasted with his crushing loneliness and his longing for Goodenough apples that can’t be found outside the swamp.
Nonfictional details bring the novel authenticity, often at the expense of character development or narrative cohesion.