Working through Adele Crockett Robertson’s “The Orchard”


Most literary locals likely already know of it, but it was not until Godine Publishers reissued it last year in a new edition, with a foreword by her daughter Betsy Robertson Cramer and an afterword by Jane Brox, that I finally picked up and read Adele “Kitty” Crockett Robertson’s “The Orchard.”

Published posthumously in 1995, when Kitty’s daughter found the manuscript amongst her mother’s belongings, her memoir captures her experience of managing the Ipswich farm her father left her, deeply in debt, in 1932.  A practicing physician, her father operated the place as a hobby; in the depths of the Depression, at age 31, Kitty found herself with no such luxury. 

I’m so glad this book continues to find its way to people, and found its way to me.  Not only is it a great read, full of seasonal observations of the changing landscape and a joyful exuberance at her choice of occupation, I also found a good deal to relate to, in spite of nearly a century of time passing and our different occupational circumstances. 

When Robertson takes over the farm, she does so as a single woman at a time when economic forces heaped difficulty upon difficulty.  There’s much to admire in her character — she has a strong moral compass (she insists on paying day laborers a fair rate even though every other farm in the area has slashed their rates), she stands up for herself (there’s a great scene of her scaring off thieves with an unloaded gun), she works hard, and she’s clever. 

It also turns out apple farming and bookselling are not so different.  First, they can be solitary endeavors. While both require help at times — Robertson hires various people at times to help with things like the harvest and collecting and selling spoiled apples for cider production — there are also long days working solo.  While Robertson sometimes did this for economic reasons, while apple prices were down and she tried to pay off debts, I was reminded of the long days of 2020 when the doors to the Book Shop were closed, and I processed orders online or over the phone with little contact with anyone save for a wave through the window during a curbside pick-up.  Sure, it got lonely, but Robertson reminded me how that time alone and without distractions allowed me to look.  The gorgeous marshy, seaside views Robertson describes out her window were the same ones I drove through each day on empty streets to and from the store.  How lucky are we to live here? 

Second, when we changed careers, we both moved from more sedentary lives into professions that required more physical labor.  Sure, I got tennis elbow from lifting heavy boxes of books in my second year on the job, but Robertson reminded me how satisfying it is to be physically tired at the end of the day.  How physical labor works your mind in a different way.  While bookselling isn’t anywhere near as demanding on the body as managing a farm, it’s loads more demanding than the cubicle life.  Kitty is constantly embarrassed by the soil under her nails; at the end of each day I find random bits of tape stuck mysteriously to some part of my body (the result of receiving and breaking down boxes of books daily). 

Finally, there’s the joy in knowing you’ve made the right decision.  Robertson makes mistakes — plenty of them.  So, do I.  Both of our expertise is only partial — she knows what her father has taught her, which is thorough in those areas, but it’s not complete.  I know plenty about books and how the industry works from working in publishing, but I’d never actually run a bookstore before, so there was plenty I didn’t know, too.  But at the end of the day, we both know we made the right decision.  Because even the mistakes, while sometimes groan-inducing, are kind of fun. 

Maybe “fun” isn’t quite the right word.  They’re ours.  They make us stronger.  They make us better in the long run.  They’re part of the process.  They’re part of the whole zany business. 

So much of what makes these businesses zany is their tie to their communities. Kitty has to come to terms with the fact that New England weather and soil are never going to be predictable or easy — and the same, I think, can be said for the guesswork that goes into selecting books and seeing how the people who walk through our doors will respond to them. 

And neither of us would have it any other way. 

Hannah Harlow is owner of The Book Shop, an independent bookstore in Beverly Farms.  Harlow writes biweekly recommendations for us.  See more of what she recommends reading at