‘Who doesn’t like trees?” challenged Tracy Chevalier at the Book Festival on Tuesday evening. Her latest novel, At the Edge of the Orchard, is the tale of a dysfunctional family, an American dream gone sour, and a love affair with all things arboreal.
Trees become the obsession of the Goodenough family, pioneers in Ohio’s Black Swamp in the 1830s, who must (according to state law) plant 50 viable fruit trees within three years to secure their land.
They find that it’s much harder than it looks to grow apples in mosquito-infested mud. Chevalier, who has demonstrated her considerable skill with bestselling historical novels such as The Girl with the Pearl Earring, turns her attention to the American settlers who went West in the 1800s in search of a better life.
Having grown up with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie novels, she wanted to de-romanticise the experience and point out that the pursuit of a dream often resulted only in “brutal, grinding hardship”.
The Goodenoughs’ struggle with the land is mirrored by the struggle in their own marriage and family, from which youngest son Robert flees, heading for Gold Rush California. He eventually finds his calling as a plant agent, collecting seed and seedlings to feed the fashion for American redwood trees in the grand gardens of Europe.
Immediately afterwards, Ian Rankin addressed another capacity crowd in the Main Theatre, in an event which included the first reading from his forthcoming Rebus novel, Rather Be The Devil, out in the autumn. In it, Edinburgh’s favourite cop is enticed out of retirement for a second time, to revisit the case of a woman strangled in the Caledonian Hotel in 1978.
That was the year Rankin arrived in the city from Fife to study at Edinburgh University. His first novel, The Flood, was published in 1986, and Rebus arrived on the scene the following year.
“Knots and Crosses was meant to be a stand-alone novel,” Rankin said. “But he drilled into my head and refused to leave. After being retired for the best part of five years, I was worried that he might have left the building, but he came bounding back.”
In September, Rankin will take up the post of Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, which might explain why he is taking more time to reflect on his own writing practice.
Unlike many crime writers, he said, he doesn’t plan his plots. “If I don’t know who did it, you probably don’t either. It’s fun not to know the end of the story. If I did know the end, why would I write the book?”