In it, Chevalier tells two stories from the same family. The first is about James Goodenough and his wife Sadie. Originally from a farming family in Connecticut, James and Sadie strike out to settle in Black Swamp, Ohio. The opening of the book is their struggle to make a home there and their battle with each other, as well as the account of James’s efforts to start an apple orchard. Along the way, the real-life Johnny Appleseed (John Chapman) makes several appearances.
The rest of the book is about their youngest son, Robert, who leaves home as a young child and gradually makes his way west. When he eventually ends up in California, his story with trees gets started as he becomes an agent for the real-life British collector William Lobb, the man who ends up bringing Redwoods and Sequoias to the UK.
The story is really about Robert’s journey west, leaving his family and searching for his own way, but ultimately he’s searching for his own family again. I won’t add any more details because there are a number of twists, turns, and fascinating events that happen along the way.
It’s a fascinating read about 19th-century America, as well as a story obsessed with apples and trees. I never thought it could be so fascinating, and then I found out afterward that Chevalier’s inspiration for the story started with a section of Michael Pollan’s terrific book, The Botany of Desire—an account of plants and how they’ve influenced history that I found spell-binding a number of years ago. My enjoyment from this novel all makes sense now.
Later this month, Chevalier’s addition to the Hogarth Shakespeare project will come out. New Boy is a modern retelling of Othello, and I can’t wait to read it. She continues to be one of my favorite novelists.