The year is 1797. John Chapman, an impulsive young man and a sexual outlaw, forsaken in the bitter winter of the Allegheny Plateau, clings to his one tenuous dream: to claim a future in the Western outpost. Unarmed and near death, Chapman is on the brink of giving up when an unexpected rescue changes his course in life forever, and he discovers the true meaning of survival.
The mysterious savior is Daniel McQuay, a loner whose overpowering bond with Chapman is as shifting as a shadow, as dark as the prairie tale he spins for the impressionable young man. For Chapman, McQuay’s story of a deranged killer clings to his transient soul like a nightmare, tracking him further south and into the safe haven of a gentle Indian woman named Gwennie. His journey also takes him into the intimate deliverance of Palmer, a brash but irresistibly innocent seventeen-year-old settler.
As the three adventurers carve a new life out of the endless wilderness, they face the ultimate enemy — man — in a life-and-death struggle that unfolds in the shadow of a legendary and avenging evil.
Review by Mark R Probst
I have a great deal of affection for Michael Jensen’s unique retelling of the origin of Johnny Appleseed in his pioneer adventure novel Frontiers. Since in reality Johnny Appleseed is more folklore and legend than historical fact, the character was a perfect vehicle for Jensen to mold into his own creation. In an interview from his website, Jensen talks about how through research he found that John Chapman (Appleseed) never married nor had a sweetheart but when he did occasionally settle down, it was always with a man. So it’s not that much of a stretch to presume that Chapman might have been gay.
Frontiers begins in 1797 with the 23-year-old Chapman heading to western Pennsylvania, an advertisement in hand offering free supplies and land to encourage western expansion. The giveaway is to occur in the spring but Chapman has arrived early, so he spends the winter with the overseer of the supplies for the management company. There is some sexual chemistry between the two men holding out the long winter in the small cabin, but I won’t spoil the twists and turns that occur. I’ll only say that a discerning reader will probably figure out the surprises, but I didn’t, and in retrospect I felt rather dense in that I couldn’t see what was coming up. But kudos to Jensen for fooling me! Once the winter is over, John takes over an abandoned claim complete with a furnished cabin and food store, close to the nearby settlement of Franklin. He becomes acquainted with the frontiersmen and women who are fired up by the town’s Native-hating preacher and anti-ecology mayor to kill all the trees and Natives (that is the ones who won’t convert to Christianity, though they are never really given a chance.) Palmer, the 17-year-old brother of the preacher, is the town rebel and not only is he sickened by the destructiveness of the townsfolk, but he is also an atheist and secretly, a sodomite. He takes a shine to John and gives him a lot of insight into the true nature of the town, all the while becoming more intimate. As John farms his land, Gwennie, a Native-American woman known as the “Apple Lady” because of the orchards she has planted and maintained, teaches him how to plant his own orchard, in a foreshadowing of what he will become. The end of the story is fraught with peril and I won’t spoil it to tell you any more.
I found a lot to like in this novel. Jensen’s breezy style is easy to read and the high adventure briskly rolled along with flourishes of humor and some really well-handled suspense as well as a few erotic scenes. Many have mislabeled this story as a Western. It really is not, since it is set in the early pioneer days before western expansion really took off. As part of the legend is John’s love of animals, I found the following particularly endearing.
Scowling, he flung a bag on the table. “Bloody hickory nuts from a squirrel’s nest.” Chocolate-hued nuts scattered across the table. “I figured we at least could roast them.”
“Sure,” I replied, unable to help wondering what the squirrel was going to eat.
Though I’ll have to admit it’s a little disheartening that every single animal John cares about meets a grisly death. Another tiny quibble I have is just my own personal dislike for the scenario where one goes to great lengths to save someone from a perilous situation only to have them killed off later. It’s also interesting to note that while legend has John as a man of God and perhaps even a minister, Jensen shows him as struggling with his faith.
As I have read a few complaints from readers regarding modern language, I will give a word of warning. If modern language in a historical is a particular pet peeve, I’d say you probably shouldn’t read this book. While Jensen did pepper the text with some relevant language from the time period, there are enough anachronistic words and phrases to lead me to believe that is was an editorial decision to use such modern language. It really wasn’t a problem for me, as I just treat it as though the modern words were a translation of what the characters really would have said.
I enjoyed my time spent with Johnny, Palmer and Gwennie and as this story only covers what led up to Chapman becoming Johnny Appleseed, naturally I was left wanting the story to continue so it’s nice to know that there is a sequel Firelands waiting for me. I, for one, will be curious to see how the legend plays out as well as how Johnny resolves his religious strife.
After I finished the book, for fun, I decided to pull out my Melody Time DVD and watch Disney’s interpretation of Johnny Appleseed for comparison. Here are the words of the narrator: “Workin’, singin’, carefree and gay, that’s how Johnny spent each day tendin’ to his apple trees.” I couldn’t help but smile, wondering if Michael Jensen had watched this as a young boy and that’s where he first got the notion that Johnny was gay.