Deep From the Archives
This is an author interview that I did in 1996. Seriously! In fact, it’s the first of many that I’m bringing up from the deep archives of my work.
The Orchard by Adele Crockett Robertson
While reading The Orchard, you can almost breathe in the sweet, fruity scent of apples. Tipping your head slightly to one side, you might hear the distant buzzing of bees dripping rich honey into elaborate combs.
Adele Crockett Robertson writes as she must have once farmed apples. Gently, but with a purposeful hand; practical, yet ever observant of the poetic beauty of life. Her clear, lyrical phrasing draws you completely into her world of 1932-1934: the weather harsh, the living rough, the people strong.
The Orchard wasn’t published until eighteen years after Robertson’s death. Her memoirs reveal her life as a hardworking, determined, former Radcliffe student. Farming the family’s apple and peach orchard during the Depression, she invites the reader to share her struggles.
Raised in comfortable surroundings the death of her father tumbled the family fortunes into disarray. While her brothers and mother wanted to sell the family farm and orchard, Robertson asked to stay on.
The farm becomes heavily mortgaged, the equipment rusty, but she mixes poisons, unlinks heavy, awkward hoses, and entices bees into nesting on her property. In her own words, “Forgetting the beauty of the dawn, I struggled without thinking, without seeing, savagely concentrated. The two hundred foot hose was . . . filled with venomous life, coiling around invisible snags in the grass . . . sulphur and lead arsenate squirted into my face . . . fresh burns were added to the old ones.”
Robertson’s tender handling of her crops is touching. Her peaches were “all white meated, rosy cheeked and juicy sweet, allowed to ripen on the tree and picked when they were so delicate that a finger touch would bruise them.”
John Updike described The Orchard as “A brave and beautiful account of one young woman’s struggle with the adversities of the Great Depression . . . Town conscience and rememberer, Kitty Robertson tells us who we are and where we live.”
Uncovering of the Manuscript
The treasure of a book may have been forever buried, however, if it weren’t for a rainy restless day for her daughter, Betsy Robertson Cramer. “Going through my mother’s papers in 1979, I came upon piles of yellowed newsprint at the bottom of a bookcase. Occasionally, during the following years I would think of them, think about reading them, but I remembered how years before I had disliked my mother’s story. I was afraid to find that I still disliked it, forgetting that I was no longer a self involved teenager.”
Then, one raw November night, Cramer read the unfinished manuscript throughout. “I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the writing, by the story itself that was new to me in every way except rough sketches,” she said. “What an experience! I would wish everyone could have the opportunity to discover their parents in their own words, writing of a time before they were alive.”
Cramer said she had previously only known the outlines of her mother’s life. “She had attended various private schools,” Cramer said, “getting kicked out of each for what she called hell-raising, and then attending Radcliffe College. Her fancy first marriage ended in divorce after five or six years.”
“Upon reading her manuscript, however, I realized how much she lived in the present, how very little I knew of her past. My mother was most comfortable with tangible things, with directness. Once I grew up, our relationship became an honest one, but she couldn’t deal with psychic complications.”
The Start of the Manuscript
When her mother turned fifty, in 1951, she had started penning her tale. Her second husband was working in the Arctic, sending home good paychecks. That gave her a break from hard work for the first time in years. After submitting her partial manuscript to Houghton Mifflin, the published forwarded $500 to finish the sage. “She bought a new typewriter and a ream of paper,” Cramer said. “I remember well the excitement.”
“I’m sure she intended to continue, but the window of freedom closed with my father’s early return,” she said. “The isolation of the months the Arctic cracked his precarious stability, and he returned a different person, suspicious, angry, hostile.”
While friends encouraged her to continue, she stopped writing the book, returning instead to work at a newspaper. Cramer described her mother’s newspaper columns as “weaving memories of a privileged and happy childhood into the tapestry of the daily happenings of a New England town.”
Bringing the Stories to Life
Cramer later combined those columns and essays into a self-published book called Measuring Time. She donated the profits to the Ipswich High School for a scholarship in her mother’s memory.
She became frustrated, though, while sending out the manuscript that would eventually become The Orchard. “I kept going because I loved it,” she said. “The words, the pictures of landscape and country and kindness towards people made me cry.” After more than eighteen months of rejections, an agent sent the book out to several publishers, receiving five enthusiastic responses.
St. Martin’s, Simon & Schuster, Scribners, Crown-Carol Southern, and a new imprint of Henry Holt, Inc. called Metropolitan Books all made offers.
Choosing Metropolitan books, Cramer wrote a foreword and epilogue to enclose the unfinished manuscript, her words seamlessly lying beside those of her mother.
The Daughter’s Contributions
Cramer described her mother’s farm in the introduction, brush stroking a word picture for readers. It was “an island of glacial till and clay rising from the salt marsh and creeks attached to the town of Ipswich by Argilla Road . . . Elaborate houses or weeds have sprung where once were peaches and apples.”
She believes her mother was unable to finish her manuscript because she had difficulty describing any romantic feelings about Cramer’s father. “By the time I was old enough to begin to know my parents as people, my parents’ marriage was close to a battleground,” Cramer said. “Feelings were what she was unable to deal with, and that was why she was unable to finish her book.”
So, Cramer gently braided the threads of her mother’s unfinished story into a sense of completeness. “The days would have gone on more or less the same—pruning, spraying, picking —and become years. Her heart must have sunk by cruel, slow degrees as each day confirmed the unescapable reality: the little orchard could not survive in such hard times.”
Robertson had written this passage in a letter, describing the demise of the orchard. “When finally the farm came to end end, and was no longer possible, it was the peaches that perished first, unloved and neglected,” she wrote. “I came back in the spring to see them, and they were broken from the ice of a hard winter, their trunks rent and bleeding amber colored tears. When I saw one last cluster of flowers on a dying tree, after all the years of disappointment and grief, I cried, too.”