Every day we throw away pieces of the future… We toss the seeds of apples, oranges, peppers, grapes and loads more. In everything we eat or drink there is so much history easily taken for granted. The histories of our ancestors, our country and our consumable planet flow swiftly into our landfills and sewage. This issue of Bookisshh examines a Historical Fiction and Memoir that which take us back, within and forward in history as it stems from the natural world. Enjoy!
History reveals unreliable narrators and so too does Tracy Chevalier in, “At The Edge of The Orchard.” Set during the 1850s Chevalier brings readers to the mosquito infested Black Swamp in the Ohio River Valley. Incorporated into this story of the Goodenough family is the legend of Johnny Appleseed and how trees moved from continent to continent and one part of the United States to the other.
The Goodenoughs are a scrappy bunch living in the murky swamp struggling to establish an apple orchard in return for the settlement of their land. Readers meet mother Sadie, a drunken, faded shrew of a woman and father, James, the unlucky Goodenough brother exiled away from the family farm due to the troublesome Sadie. The main children featured in this work are Robert and Martha, two of the ten Goodenough offspring who survive both swamp fever and their unhappily married parents.
“At The Edge of The Orchard” has some structural challenges. Initially, the homestead and fuzzy backstory of the Goodenoughs is pieced together using alternating unreliable first person and omniscient narrators; Sadie, James and someone unknown until they both die and a different story emerges. The next part of the book consists of a series of unreceived letters from Robert Goodenough who journeys readers across the country to California during the Gold Rush and Westward expansion. There are wagon rides, camp outs, saloons, rooming houses and hotels and all the while there are crass but good hardworking Americans trying to homestead and lay the foundation for this country. Added to this are more unreceived letters from Sister Martha as she makes her way to Robert bearing a child and grave news. Insert into this a love story between Robert and Molly who discover their love when Molly learns that she is with child. There is a gritty American feel to “At The Edge of The Orchard.” The characters work tirelessly through blood, sweat, tears and remain kindly and responsible people which is oft fleeting in today’s cushy world.
Germinating throughout the narrative is fantastic botanical detail. Readers can learn how trees are grafted, transported, seeds and specimen are collected and catalogued while gaining cursory knowledge of who’s who among early pioneers in specimen collection and varietal cultivation.
Bittersweet is how “At The Edge of The Orchard” left me feeling. The crude, insensitive aspect of people prior to the refining effect of mass education is unsettling. Further, the ending was trite and hurried. The story of generations should’ve lingered longer similar to the old, oak trees that gather in circles gracing our parks. This story fell a few rings short of what makes a work lasting and qualitative but somehow I enjoyed it.
The insufferable arrogance of human beings to think that Nature was made solely for their benefit, as if it was conceivable that the sun had been set afire merely to ripen men’s apples and head their cabbages. -Cyrano de Bergerac
Sometimes we need to leave to understand where we come from… Other times we need to stay and be who we are. Many a great writer has struggled with coming of age stories involving this journey and what better settings than New York City and France!
Voila! In this memoir readers settle in with Laure Dugas, native of France and descendant of two great wine families one of which specializes in Champagne.
Suffering from ennui, Laure decides to uproot from France and move to New York City as Brand Ambassador for Chateau la Nerthe, her uncle Alain’s company. Once in New York, Laure hits the ground running and fakes her way through English and waitressing at a French/Thai restaurant until her ambassadorship begins.
Initially lonely, Laure creates lasting and intimate friendships with other French expatriates. From the safety of this circle, Laure ventures out observing and commenting on American optimism and cheerfulness. Further, she confides, “–Americans are always lying through their teeth to tell you how nice you look or how wonderful their day is..” It is a tough truth to swallow but is easier to digest listening to her French voice as she observes, intones and instructs us American voyeurs on wine appreciation,origin and viticulture.
Readers travel with Dugas back and forth from New York to France as she reestablishes herself in another champagne house, Pringent. Readers watch Laure grow and change much akin to a good wine biding its time in bottles and barrels awaiting its peak moment. During Dugas’ retelling, wine spectators learn a philosophy and strategy she employs to educate her palates and those belonging fortunate others. Laure rediscovers and extends the wine and champagne knowledge that is embedded in her DNA. This section toggles back and forth frequently from how to approach wine, how it’s classified regionally and the basics of how viticulture crafts wine and her personal tale. Still it remains, that wine is a metaphor for ourselves and to know wine and what we enjoy in wine, is knowing ourselves intimately.
At the back end of her tale, Laure demonstrates the determining factor in a wine’s taste success–terroir. The landscape, ecosystem, weather, tradition in cultivation and where the grapes are born. Where the grapes are happy, the wine is good and so too is Laure Dugas.