[three extracts from different parts of the book]
[Sadie is describing a visitor, John Chapman] He had long greasy hair and a beard stained yellow round his mouth chewin baccy,, and he wore a coffee sack belted round the middle with a piece of rope, and holes cut out for the neck and arms. He looked like a crazed swamp man, but we was glad to see him, as there weren’t a whole lotta folks around and it was a treat to get a visitor, even a crazy one.
[Sadie describes the family's life] End of the day there’d be mud tracked everywhere, a pile of muddy boots by the door, food on the floor where Caleb and Nathan dropped it. But for now it was all prepared and ready for a day of battlin the Black Swamp. We werent livin with the land, but alive despite it. Cause it wanted to kill us every chance it got, either the skeeters or the fever or the mud or the damp or the heat or the cold… Sometimes durin the cold spells when the snow high against the house, all seven of us would be huddlin by the fire wrapped in quilts and not movin the whole day cept to feed the animals and the fire and ourselves.
[Robert has moved to California] Robert had witnessed a Fourth of July cotillion where 32 people had danced on the Great Stump, with enough space for the musicians as well. The cotillion had made the newspapers in Stockton and Sacramento and even San Francisco, with a drawing of the dance published alongside the articles. They were more like advertisements than news, orchestrated by Billie Lapham to publicize Calaveras Grove.
commentary: At times this book is as dark and bleak as a book can be, and the character of Sadie is extraordinary – I doubt I’ll read about a more memorable fictional woman this year. Tracy Chevalier doesn’t hold back: the reader wants so much to like her, keeps expecting that there will be some softening, that she will start behaving better or showing some love or affection, but she keeps right on going…
The action runs from 1838 to 1856: starting out in the Black Swamp of Ohio, a place that is just as horrible as it sounds. The Goodenough family have staked a claim to a smallholding, and are growing apples. The character mentioned in the first extract is John Chapman, who is an American folkhero known as Johnny Appleseed (I had never heard of him till I went to live in the USA in the 90s, and found out about him via children’s books), who carries apple seeds and seedlings by boat to the farming families.
The book goes into considerable detail about growing apples, starting out with distinguishing between eaters and spitters – the spitters are cider apples. James and Sadie have a number of children and have to work through every bad circumstance you could think of, and then some, and also fight each other with great bitterness, utterly vicious. There is ‘swamp fever’, which seems to be malaria:
Almost every year one of his children was picked off, to join the row of graves marked with wooden crosses in a slightly higher spot in the woods not far from the cabin. With each grave he’d had to clear maples and ash to make space to dig. He’d learned to do this in July, before anyone died, so that the body did not have to wait for him to wrestle with the trees’ extensive roots.Of all the heart-stopping descriptions of children dying…
The story is compelling but very downbeat, but then just in time the action moves and follows one of the sons who leaves home, and we follow him over the next few years. Robert does many different things, but in the end he turns out to be as obsessed by trees as his father was – not just apple trees either. He gets involved in plant collection, but also is tied up with the extraordinary Calaveras Grove – a real-life grove of giant sequoia trees. The descriptions of the trees and the surroundings are amazing, absolutely riveting, sticking in my mind.
At one point Billie Lapham (a real-life character) is bothered by seedlings from the trees going to England:
“England! You plant redwoods there, nobody’ll come from there to see Cally Grove trees.”(Chevalier is always careful to distinguish between redwoods and sequoias, but some of the characters in the book are less careful.)
I don’t know what happens to the seedlings in the book, but I can tell Billie that he’s wrong – from when I was a child I always longed to see the giant trees of California, and it was one of the great adventures of my life when I achieved my ambition – and particularly when I drove through a redwood tree.
The story goes back into the past so we finally find out what happened to the family, why Robert left, and then it’s back to finish off the story of the Goodenoughs.
I’m not sure I’ve made much of a hand at describing the book, with its multiple voices. But I can say it was a wonderful book, I loved it, though that may be because I am as fascinated by big trees as the book is. Maybe other people would be less entranced?
One thing – talking about The Dollmaker, Harriette Arnow’s masterpiece, recently I argued with the book’s contention that living in the country was automatically much better than living in the city, that it was a straight black and white distinction. Now this book has no such feeling, and is quite plain about the horrors of dirt farming, and swamps, and the misery of being a long way to town. Evidence for the prosecution? - this book is knock-out evidence.
Picture of Johnny Appleseed is a mural in Mansfield Ohio, from the Library of Congress.
The Library of Congress has a fascinating collection of old photos showing the trees at Calaveras Grove, a key setting for the book – anyone who reads the book and is interested should go and take a look, as it’s an amazing opportunity to see what Chevalier is writing about. I was spoilt for choice.
All the tree photos are from Library of Congress.
The drawing is of people dancing on the treestump.