Tracy Chevalier is well known for her historical novels, Girl with a Pearl Earring was a best seller and made into an incredibly well known movie too. So you might be expecting something similar, after all many authors churn out novel after novel that are reflections of their best known work.
Not this novelist. This is still historical fiction but set as far from the civilisation of the renaissance as you can imagine. It is more recent times, the mid eighteenth century, but Chevalier is exploring the lives of Americans struggling to eke their existence from the land.
Tom and Sadie Goodenough have moved to tthe Black Swamp with their children and if they can manage to get 50 trees to bear fruit the land is theirs permanently. But they’ve only got three years left to do it and last year they lost nine trees and two of their children to swamp fever. Sadie is a vivacious flirt turned bitter and drunk, Tom a quiet, determined man who loves his apples more than his children. Their fights are getting meaner until one day something happens to rent the family apart.
The first part of the story is told first from the perspectives of Sadie and Tom. Then in letters from their son Robert, trying to make his fortune panning for gold, before we hear from his perspective directly as he settles into a new role as a tree collector. The settings, though of deep poverty, are richly described and enveloping as the novel examines what family means, the ties that bind and those that don’t.
It is compelling, the characters surprise you with their depths and determination and it is also a fascinating portrait of 18c America, from the backwaters to the prairies to cities like San Fransico. Amongst the characters are the forebears of the modern day redneck and businessman alike, I felt I had a little better understanding of why America voted Trump in, but also that if most of them had read this book they would have known that the nostalgia trip was not all it’s cracked up to be.
NB I received a free copy of this book through NetGalley in return for an honest review. The BookEaters always write honest reviews