It is 1838 and Sadie and James Goodenough, from CT, were traveling west having been asked to leave his family farm. Apparently, it was not big enough for all of the family members. Plagued by wagon troubles, they were forced to stop at the Black Swamp in Ohio, where they staked a claim and began to plant apple trees. It sounds like a terrible place, but the Government guaranteed their claim to the land if they managed to create an orchard with 50 thriving trees. There was conflict immediately between Sadie and James. She liked spitters and he liked eaters. Spitters were good for baking and made apple jack. Sadie loved and became addicted to the apple jack. Eaters were merely for good eating and Sadie rightly believed that James loved those apples more than he loved her. James resented the man, John Chapman, who brought Sadie the apple jack and who disapproved of and criticized his methods of raising and breeding apple trees. James grafted one tree to another to try and create a better apple. Chapman believed that was G-d’s work. Sadie sided with Chapman. She seemed to enjoy making James jealous, but she was really the jealous one. She was often devious and mean, conniving and vengeful. She had birthed 10 children, not all of whom survived, but they all helped in the orchard and witnessed the sometimes violent feud between their parents. James and Sadie were literally at war over the apple trees. She sabotaged his efforts and destroyed his trees when he used part of her spitters to graft to his eaters.
After a tragic accident, Robert, barely 9 years old, takes off and does not return. He makes his way, finding all sorts of odd jobs to take care of himself. It was a time when child labor was acceptable and children often made their way on their own, struggling to survive. He sent letters home frequently, explaining how he was getting on, hoping for an answer from someone, but after almost two decades of letters with no response, he stopped. The mail was unreliable and he moved around a lot. His life was not easy, and although lonely, he seemed easy going and satisfied with his simple life. His sister Martha had learned about one of his letters, that her brother had not shared, and began writing her own letters to Robert, hoping for a return response. She told him all about her life and his family. It is through these letters and the voices of Sadie and James that the reader learns about all of the intervening years of tragedy and hardship that befell the family.
The author painted a very lucid picture of those days gone by, of the swamp and the swamp fever that struck them down, of the difficulty of surviving and nurturing trees in the foul smelling mud without modern day equipment or technology, of the tragedy that befell each one who lived the hard life of a frontier family. We see Robert’s life turn full circle as he goes from drifter to a man who returns to the trees. Each character was drawn so clearly that the reader easily can picture an image in their minds. There is the vindictive Sadie, the sometimes violent James, the drifter Chapman, the quiet and obedient, thoughtful Robert, the shy and frail Martha who bore the brunt of her mother’s cruelty, and the drunken brother Caleb who was a no-account, quite clearly. At the end, the reader will be left wondering if the future would be full of hope or despair for Robert. It is a very well written book that will draw the reader in and hold his/her attention completely.