Reviews: At the Edge of the Orchard/ How to Measure a Cow

Posted on 31st March 2016 by Anne Haas
Bookseller Anne Haas reviews Tracy Chevalier's At the Edge of the Orchard and Margaret Foster's How to Measure a Cow.

Tracy Chevalier’s spares no details in her new novel At the Edge of the Orchard. Set in 19th Century Ohio, the Black Swamp homes pioneer family, the Goodenoughs, whom live at the mercy of the swamps harsh environment leading to the death of several of their children through swamp fever. The reader is automatically absorbed into the strains of family relationships and the marriage between Patrich James and Sadie Goodenough. Sadie takes solace in applejack cider created from the ‘spitter apples’ from the family orchard. Their attempted revival of the swamp and the hardship endured drives Robert, their youngest son, to take his life for his own and leave Ohio.

Not only is Chevalier’s research reflected in her rich description of the Black Swamp but she introduces another dimension into her writing through the introduction of historical characters such as  John ‘Johnny Appleseed’ Chapman in from whom the family get their seeds and saplings and Cornish plant collector William Lobb (1809 –1864) responsible for the distribution of plant specimens across the globe, research at Kew gardens and the commercial introduction of the Sequoiadendron giganteum (Wellingtonia) to England from North America. Chevalier brings these figures to life through the integration of the plot and shows a wealth of knowledge about trees, in particular redwoods and sequoias which populated the area Robert eventually learns to love.

The element of epistolary works brilliantly within the novel to highlight Robert’s travels through North America, from Ohio up to Canada and then through to Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Missouri, Texas and then California as he encounters the Californian Gold Rush. The way in which Chevalier depicts Robert’s literary abilities as he becomes more educated is representative of the era and his growth as a working man, which gives the novel depth and an honest reflection of the time.

Chevalier’s work is evocative, and fierce, rich with the impact of family ties and a strong sense of hope for not only Robert and his family but the seedlings he plants and the trees he watches grow.

If you like the idea of resettlement and rural life try Margaret Foster’s latest and sadly last novel, How to Measure a Cow. Protagonist Tara Fraser leaves her home in London, and flees to Cumbria to escape her past. Grudgingly, she discovers the dangers of isolation and trying to suppress the past. The reader soon learns that the biggest conflict is between Tara and her reinvented self, Sarah. What crime has she committed to push the limits of her own self and push everyone in her life away? Tara’s complex personality demands empathy but is she deserving of it?

Foster, has yet again, produced an intriguing and realistic read interwoven with questions of identity, morals and the boundaries of relationships. Much like Chevalier, the reader is invested in a bleak story with hope of happiness for its characters and left with a bittersweet ending.


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