The Last of the Apple Blossom by Mary-Lou Stephens

‘Catherine though the beach would be safe, with its slim arc of sand and the cool water just beyond.’

Hobart, 7 February 1967. Young schoolteacher Catherine Turner is teaching her young Grade One students in Hobart’s Sandy Bay Infant School on a day when much of southern Tasmania is reduced to ash. After the children are sent home, Catherine rushes to the family orchard in the Huon Valley. Disaster has struck the Turner family: the apple orchard has been destroyed, and Catherine’s brother Peter lost his life as the family home burned.

In shock. Catherine visits her friend and neighbour Annie Pearson. Annie has recently had her sixth child: a daughter, after five sons. While the Pearson orchard has sustained damage, it has not been destroyed. Dave Pearson’s friend Mark and his young son Charlie were staying at the Pearson orchard when the fire hit. Mark’s wife has left, and he is waiting for her to return. Even though Mark is helping repair the damage to the orchard, Annie wants him gone.

 Catherine wants to help her father rebuild the orchard, but he does not see this as a role for a woman. Her mother is devastated by her brother’s death, and both parents seem angry with Catherine. Meanwhile, Catherine becomes fond of Charlie and becomes friendly with Mark.

The story unfolds between 1967 and the present. Into the 1970s, there are small-town prejudices to overcome, and several secrets involving the key characters. Ms Stephens captures the small-town atmosphere and attitudes as well as the struggles of the Tasmanian apple industry.

I really enjoyed reading this novel: it took me ‘home’ to Tasmania. I remember the 1967 Black Tuesday bushfires: I was ten at the time and living in Launceston. I also remember the restructuring of the apple industry during the early 1970s: members of my extended family had orchards in the Spreyton district. But I digress. This is a beautifully written novel, peopled with finely realised characters in a well-described historical setting.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Harlequin Australia for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith