Jackson Taylor weaves an affecting—if at times disturbing—and ultimately hopeful tale while tackling issues of gender, class, family and race in his first novel, The Blue Orchard, based upon the remarkable life of his grandmother, Verna Krone. In 1954, Verna, a white nurse, and Charles Crampton, an African-American physician, were arrested in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, for performing scandalous “illegal operations”; in Taylor’s hands, this is the pivotal point from which Verna looks back on her life.
Born into poverty in rural Pennsylvania, Verna, a bright student, is pulled out of school in the 1920s to support the family. Thus begins her journey from home to home and job to job, endlessly searching for some control over her life. During her term as a hired farm girl, her boss takes advantage of her, leaving her pregnant at 14, but under the guidance of a local midwife, her “trouble” is taken care of.
Pregnancy, parenting and children’s fates are major themes in The Blue Orchard, as Verna later becomes a mother, leaves her newborn son to be raised by her own unwilling mother, marries a man who has abandoned his children and becomes the vigilant caregiver for thousands of women of all ages, incomes and situations, who surreptitiously stream through her door to recover from abortions performed by Dr. Crampton—an occupation that brings her financial security beyond her wildest dreams but invokes new stresses and fears.
Verna is a flawed but strong woman whose self-examination is uncompromising. Her association with Dr. Crampton, a pillar of Harrisburg’s African-American community whose ties to the Harvey Taylor political machine build him up but tragically leave him a broken man, exposes her to dirty politics, deceit, injustice and emergencies that bring out the best and worst in her. Taylor’s unflinching and gracefully written novel brings us face-to-face with ugly national and personal realities, not only helping us to understand our collective history and family dynamics, but also helping to frame the contemporary abortion debate. A moving and important novel, The Blue Orchard is a fine read.
Sheri Bodoh writes from Eldridge, Iowa.