Book Review — The Ghost Orchard

The Ghost Orchard
Helen Humphreys
Harper Collins, 2017

While it first appears to be a simple exploration of lost North American apple varieties, The Ghost Orchard dredges up other kinds of ghosts and other types of loss in a lacy web of colonialism, agriculture, and human relationships.

Taken on when her friend Joanne Page was dying from cancer, Humphreys traces her own search for the Winter White Pearmain (“crisp and juicy with an underlay of pear and honey”), a heritage apple she discovers near a cabin by her home while walking the dog, and a metaphor for all types of loss as she explores the lost orchards of many notable apple-lovers.

There are many tangents here, but the chapters on Robert Frost and his love of apples, as well as the work of Ann Jessop, who travelled the US with apple scions (those are the branches that are grafted onto existing trees, as opposed to planting seeds directly into the ground) are but two stories that Humphreys researches and shares. She also writes extensively about her Grandfather, an artist who painted the artwork for seed packets, and whose interest in not just apples but all types of produce has obviously affected her.

Readers will either love or hate the intertwining of Humphreys’ personal memories and loss with the more factual and historical elements of this work. Sometimes they feel extremely disparate and at odds, yet in the case of her discussion of the orchards of Native North Americans and how they were appropriated by colonial settlers, the sense of loss and sympathy crosses over into the personal.

Humphreys ends with a massive list of lost apple varieties that will make anyone standing in the supermarket considering “red, green, or yellow” tearful at what we’re all missing. Which is sort of the point, I think, on every level.