At the Edge of the Orchard
Goodreads ratings
3.63 / 5

"At the Edge of the Orchard" Characters Analysis

By Tracy Chevalier

historical fiction | 305 pages | Published in 2016

What happens when you can’t run any further from your past?Ohio, 1838. James and Sadie Goodenough have settled in the Black Swamp, planting apple trees to claim the land as their own. Life is harsh in the swamp, and as fever picks off their children, husband and wife take solace in separate comforts. James patiently grows his sweet-tasting ‘eaters’ while Sadie gets drunk on applejack made fresh from ‘spitters’. Their fighting takes its toll on all of the Goodenoughs – a battle that will resonate over the years and across America.Fifteen years later their youngest son, Robert, is drifting through Gold Rush California. Haunted by the broken family he fled years earlier, memories stick to him where mud once did. When he finds steady work for a plant collector, peace seems finally to be within reach. But the past is never really past, and one day Robert is forced to confront the brutal reason he left behind everything he loved.In this rich, powerful story, Tracy Chevalier is at her imaginative best, bringing to life the urge to wrestle with our roots, however deep and tangled they may be.


Estimated read time: 8 min read

List of Characters

Character NameRole
James GoodenoughProtagonist
Sadie GoodenoughProtagonist
Robert GoodenoughSupporting Character
Martha GoodenoughSupporting Character
Johnny AppleseedHistorical Figure
Molly LarkinSupporting Character
Ren GrootSupporting Character
John ChapmanHistorical Figure

Role Identification

In "At the Edge of the Orchard," James and Sadie Goodenough are the central characters, with the story revolving around their struggles and conflicts. The supporting characters, such as Robert, Martha, Molly, Ren, and the historical figures of Johnny Appleseed and John Chapman, play important roles in shaping the narrative and the development of the main characters.

Character Descriptions

James Goodenough

James Goodenough is a determined and hardworking man who immigrated to the United States from England with his family. He is tall and lean, with rough hands and a weathered face due to years of toiling on the family's apple orchard in Ohio. James is known for his stubbornness and his love for apple trees, particularly the Delicious apple variety. He has a deep connection to the land and is willing to fight for what he believes is right.

Sadie Goodenough

Sadie Goodenough is James's wife and a strong-willed woman who shares her husband's love for apple trees. She is shorter than James, with a wiry frame and a determined expression. Sadie has a fiery temperament and is often at odds with James, but she also possesses a certain resilience that helps her cope with the hardships of pioneer life. She is fiercely protective of her children and will do whatever it takes to provide for them.

Robert Goodenough

Robert Goodenough is the eldest son of James and Sadie. He is a quiet and reserved individual who is often overshadowed by his parents' conflicts. Robert is passionate about botany and has a deep knowledge of apple varieties. He becomes a source of solace for his younger siblings, offering them support and guidance as they navigate their troubled family dynamic.

Martha Goodenough

Martha Goodenough is the youngest daughter of James and Sadie. She is an adventurous and spirited girl who often finds solace in nature. Martha has a strong bond with her brother Robert and looks up to him for guidance. She possesses a deep love for apple trees and is fascinated by the life and work of Johnny Appleseed.

Johnny Appleseed

Johnny Appleseed is a historical figure who appears in the book as a wandering nurseryman and conservationist. He is depicted as a kind-hearted and eccentric individual who travels the frontier, planting apple trees and spreading his philosophy of harmony with nature. Johnny plays a significant role in the lives of the Goodenough family, especially Martha, who sees him as a source of inspiration.

Molly Larkin

Molly Larkin is a young woman who becomes involved with the Goodenough family when she marries Robert. She is a compassionate and patient person who tries to bridge the gap between James and Sadie. Molly provides a sense of stability and love to the family, particularly to Martha.

Ren Groot

Ren Groot is a Dutch botanist who befriends Robert during his travels. He is a knowledgeable and passionate individual who shares Robert's interest in apple varieties. Ren becomes an important mentor figure for Robert, guiding him in his pursuit of botanical knowledge and offering him a different perspective on life.

John Chapman

John Chapman, also known as Johnny Appleseed, is a historical figure who is referenced in the book. He is depicted as a gentle and eccentric man who spreads seeds and plants apple trees throughout the United States. His legacy and philosophy of living in harmony with nature have a profound impact on the characters in the story.

Character Traits

  • James Goodenough: Determined, stubborn, hardworking, passionate, protective.
  • Sadie Goodenough: Strong-willed, resilient, fiery, protective, resourceful.
  • Robert Goodenough: Quiet, reserved, knowledgeable, compassionate, supportive.
  • Martha Goodenough: Adventurous, spirited, nature-loving, inspired, curious.
  • Johnny Appleseed: Kind-hearted, eccentric, harmonious, inspiring, conservationist.
  • Molly Larkin: Compassionate, patient, stabilizing, loving, understanding.
  • Ren Groot: Knowledgeable, passionate, mentor, supportive, insightful.
  • John Chapman: Gentle, eccentric, legacy, philosophical, nature lover.

Character Background

James and Sadie Goodenough were a married couple who immigrated to Ohio from England in the 1830s. They settled on a plot of land and attempted to cultivate an apple orchard. However, their marriage was plagued by constant arguments and disagreements, which had a detrimental effect on their children, Robert and Martha. James was deeply passionate about growing the Delicious apple variety, while Sadie preferred the more practical and hardy apple varieties. Despite their shared love for apple trees, their conflicting personalities and desires created a toxic environment for their family.

Robert, the eldest son, found solace in botany and developed a deep knowledge of apple varieties. Martha, the youngest daughter, was fascinated by Johnny Appleseed and his philosophy of living in harmony with nature. Molly Larkin, a kind-hearted woman, became involved with the family when she married Robert and brought a sense of stability and love to the troubled household.

Ren Groot, a Dutch botanist, entered the story as a mentor figure for Robert, sharing his knowledge and passion for apple varieties. The historical figure of Johnny Appleseed also played a significant role in the characters' lives, inspiring Martha and leaving a lasting impact on their understanding of nature and humanity's relationship with it.

Character Arcs

James Goodenough's character arc in the story is one of redemption and acceptance. Initially portrayed as stubborn and unwilling to compromise, he undergoes a transformation as the story progresses. James recognizes the destructive nature of his constant conflicts with Sadie and learns to appreciate her perspective and the practicality of alternative apple varieties.

Sadie Goodenough's character arc revolves around finding her own identity and voice. She starts as a strong-willed but resentful woman, constantly at odds with James. Through the challenges she faces, Sadie discovers her own strength and resilience, eventually finding a sense of purpose beyond her role as a wife and mother.

Robert Goodenough's character arc is one of self-discovery and growth. Initially overshadowed by his parents' conflicts, he finds solace in botany and develops a deep understanding of apple varieties. Robert becomes a supportive figure for his younger siblings and learns to navigate the complexities of family dynamics.

Martha Goodenough's character arc centers around her fascination with Johnny Appleseed and her desire for a more harmonious life. Inspired by Johnny's philosophy, she seeks a connection with nature and strives for a better, more peaceful existence for herself and her family.


The relationship between James and Sadie Goodenough is characterized by constant conflict and resentment. Their clashing personalities and desires create a toxic environment that deeply affects their children.

Robert and Martha Goodenough share a close sibling bond, providing support and guidance to each other as they navigate their troubled family dynamic.

The relationship between Molly Larkin and the Goodenough family is one of love, stability, and understanding. Molly's presence brings a sense of calm and normalcy to the household, providing a much-needed respite from the constant conflicts.

Ren Groot serves as a mentor figure for Robert, sharing his knowledge and passion for botany. Ren's friendship and guidance offer Robert a different perspective on life and aid in his personal growth.

The historical figures of Johnny Appleseed and John Chapman have a profound impact on the characters. Johnny's philosophy of living in harmony with nature inspires Martha and shapes her understanding of the world. John Chapman's legacy and work as a conservationist influence the characters' perception of their own lives and their relationship with the land.

In conclusion, "At the Edge of the Orchard" delves into the complex dynamics of the Goodenough family and the transformative power of nature. Through the characters' struggles, conflicts, and relationships, Tracy Chevalier explores themes of love, resilience, and the pursuit of a harmonious existence.