Who met her husband at a tea party, likes to quilt and prefers to spin her stories in longhand?
If you attended the Thurber House’s Evenings with Authors event on March 22, you know that I’m speaking of Tracy Chevalier, the 1984 Oberlin College graduate who moved to England and became a best-selling author.
Chevalier stopped in Columbus during her tour to promote her new book, At the Edge of the Orchard. The novel is a story about what happens when a couple plants an orchard of 50 apple trees in the Black Swamp of 1830s Ohio to stake their claim on the property, and the decision their son eventually has to make in the giant sequoia groves of Gold Rush California, working as a plant agent for William Lobb, a British botanist who collected sequoia cones and seedlings to take back to England and be snatched up by wealthy Victorians to plant on their country estates.
From the start, Chevalier captivated the crowd by reading three excerpts from her book. One presented main character James Goodenough, a sensible man with a weakness for eating apples, fostered by his mother giving them to him in childhood as a special, sweet treat (pages 9-12). Another introduced James’s wife, Sadie, a character with a weakness for the hard cider that comes from sour apples and the refuge it offers from frontier life (pages 12-16). A third proclaimed the arrival of John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed — a grizzled man with long greasy hair and a tobacco-stained beard who looked like a crazed swamp man, but understood the power of apples and the things that come from them (pages 20-22).
Then, Chevalier described how the book resulted from three things. First, her husband, Jonathan Drori, is on the board of The Woodland Trust, an organization in the United Kingdom that campaigns to protect ancient trees, restores the damaged ones, and fights for those that are threatened. In 2011, requested by the Trust to raise awareness of their cause, Chevalier edited Why Willows Weep: Contemporary Tales from the Woods, a collection of contemporary fables by 19 authors. Contributing a short story called “Why Birches Have Silver Bark” prompted her to realize how much she’d like to write about trees, particularly the apple trees of Ohio and the sequoia trees so prevalent in California.
Second, she read Michael Pollan’s 2001 book, Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World, and was fascinated by his chapter on the apple, in which he explained that sweet apples were the result of grafting sweet apple trees, while sour apples were produced by apple trees grown from seed. She was captivated by Pollan’s alternative take on the Johnny Appleseed myth — that John Chapman was a successful businessman welcomed by settlers, not so much because he was promoting a healthy lifestyle through the wholesome apple, but because he was bringing alcohol to the frontier.
Soon, Chevalier was thinking about two characters for a book – a married couple who squabble over apples, one of them wanting to plant sweet apples for eating, the other preferring to plant sour ones for making hard cider.
Then, she remembered a hike that she and her husband took along the border between England and Wales, and a grove of 33 redwood trees from California that were transplanted there in 1857. That led to her fascination with how trees migrate the way people do.
A return trip to Oberlin to receive an honorary doctorate led Chevalier to write The Last Runaway, a novel in which an English Quaker girl who moves to Ohio in the 1850s, marries a farmer and helps move slaves through the Underground Railroad. While doing research for that book, Chevalier visited an Amish farm not far from Oberlin to see the way a 19th century farm would have been run, then thanked Maddie Shetler and her children in the book’s acknowledgments. On her second visit to the Shetlers’ farm, she met a shy nine-year-old boy with bright brown eyes, and bonded with him talking about the kittens that were in the barn. Chevalier knew she had met the boy who would inspire young Robert Goodenough in At the Edge of the Orchard.
To understand how difficult it was to settle the vast, muddy swampland — swarming with mosquitoes, frogs and a dreaded feverish ague — that spread over parts of 12 northwest Ohio counties and cities like Toledo and Perrysburg, Chevalier read The Great Black Swamp: Historical Tales of 19th-Century Northwest Ohio, by Jim Mollenkopf. She also spent time in the last physical remnants of the swamp, such as Magee Marsh State Nature Reserve in Ottawa County. Also influential was Conrad Richter’s trilogy of novels about Ohio settlers: The Trees (1940), The Fields (1946) and The Town (1950).
Chevalier explained that giving her new book the title she did was a dilemma she wanted to present to her readers. If they were the Goodenoughs, would they stand at the edge of the orchard and decide to stick out such a tough life, or would they pursue the American dream of heading west?
Recalling her fondness for escaping contemporary life for the past through her writing, Chevalier took questions from several members of the audience. Some wondered whether she had visited nearby Dawes Arboretum during her research for At the Edge of the Orchard. Others were curious about Johnny Appleseed. Still more asked about whether writing about science was different than writing about art.
All this was well and good, but I knew that Chevalier was working on a few more big projects this year, and she hadn’t said a word about them. The audience needed to know about them! So I patiently raised my hand, hoping that my sparkling magenta suede limited-edition Swarovski Alibi bracelet would catch her attention. It worked. She called on me.
“There are two big anniversaries being celebrated in the literary world this year, and I know that you’re working on some interesting projects related to them,” I said. “Would you please tell us about them?”
So she did.
She explained that one milestone being celebrated this year is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charlotte Brontë, the author of Jane Eyre. She was invited to curate an exhibition at the Bronte Parsonage Museum in Haworth, West Yorkshire that runs until January 1, 2017. “Charlotte Great and Small” includes a scrap from a dress she wore to a London dinner party hosted by William Makepeace Thackeray, the miniature books she made as a girl, her paintings, a modern-day artistic representation of the letters she wrote to her unrequired love, and a knitted scene from Jane Eyre. Click here to watch Chevalier give a tour of the exhibition.
Chevalier also edited an anthology of contemporary short stories influenced by Charlotte Bronte. Reader, I Married Him — the title inspired by the famous line from Jane Eyre — was released in the United States the day of Chevalier’s Thurber House appearance.
Chevalier shared that Brontë was born April 21, 1816. This year, April 21 also marks Queen Elizabeth II’s 90th birthday.
Two days later, on April 23, 2016, the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death will occur. To commemorate this event, Chevalier was invited to participate in the Hogarth Shakespeare Project, in which writers take a Shakespeare play and craft a new version of it. She has chosen to retell Othello, setting it on a 1970s elementary school playground; all the characters are 11 years old, and the action takes place over one day.
The audience oohed and aahed as Chevalier spoke. As she made her way to the back of the room to sign books, a few people thanked me for asking my question. Mission accomplished!
WOSU’s Christopher Purdy interviewed Chevalier before her visit to Columbus; it aired on the March 18, 2016 edition of All Sides with Ann Fisher. Click here to listen; it starts around 18:00.
In the March 9, 2016 issue of Country Life magazine, Chevalier revealed that her favorite painting is Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. “One day, it occurred to me that her expression reveals how she felt about the painter, and then I knew I wanted to write about that relationship,” she said. Girl with a Pearl Earring, Chevalier’s novel about the girl who modeled for the painting, was the result of wondering what Vermeer did to get her to look that way at him.
To read other books by Chevalier, check out The Virgin Blue; Falling Angels; The Lady and the Unicorn; Burning Bright; and my favorite, Remarkable Creatures, about English fossil hunter Mary Anning. She also contributed “When They Were Needed Most,” a story inspired by the gift boxes Princess Mary gave British soldiers for Christmas 1914, from The Great War: Stories Inspired by Items from the First World War. “Rosy” and “A Hand on My Shoulder” are two fictional character sketches she wrote that are based on portraits in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, for Imagined Lives: Portraits of Unknown People. Read “Lying to the Optician: The Reading Experience Rated,” in Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times, edited by Kevin Smokler; then, visit her website to see “What I’m Reading,” her list of what she’s read each month.