In 1830s Ohio, the Goodenough family barely scratch out a living in the inhospitable Black Swamp. James and Sadie’s marriage is being torn apart by disputes over whether to grow sweet apples to eat or sour apples for cider. One particularly vicious fight sends their son, Robert, out alone across America, leaving his siblings behind.

What I enjoyed most about this book was the setting. We see pioneer families struggling to eke out a living in the unforgiving American landscape, men and women consumed by feverish desire in the California gold rush, the characters always driven by the hope that things will be better tomorrow because this is America, the land where nuggets of gold are found in the mud, where fortunes are made and dreams come true.

We spend the first few chapters with James and Sadie, before following their son Robert across America. Robert was definitely my favourite character, a quiet young man who is haunted by his choice to walk away from his family many years ago. The story leaps back and forth in time but it never becomes confusing; Chevalier fills in the details bit by bit until we discover the real reason Robert left his family behind.

I’ve seen some reviewers complaining about the depressing tone of the book and mostly it is a story of failure and desperation. But as the story goes on there are flashes of hope and humour, and a host of secondary characters with big personalities help to lighten the mood.

There are definitely times when this book becomes slow and dull. The minutiae of caring for apple trees is explained with no details spared but it is easy to skim over these passages if you want to without missing out on anything important until we get back to the characters.

I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys character-driven historical fiction. Anyone searching for an exciting plot would be best to look elsewhere.