The Blue Orchard

A Novel

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About The Book

On the eve of the Great Depression, Verna Krone, the child of Irish immigrants, must leave the eighth grade and begin working as a maid to help support her family. Her employer takes inappropriate liberties, and as Verna matures, it seems as if each man she meets is worse than the last. Through sheer force of will and a few chance encounters, she manages to teach herself to read and becomes a nurse. But Verna’s new life falls to pieces when she is arrested for assisting a black doctor with "illegal surgeries." As the media firestorm rages, Verna reflects on her life while awaiting trial.

Based on the life of the author’s own grandmother and written after almost three hundred interviews with those involved in the real-life scandal, The Blue Orchard is as elegant and moving as it is exact and convincing. It is a dazzling portrayal of the changes America underwent in the first fifty years of the twentieth century. Readers will be swept into a time period that in many ways mirrors our own. Verna Krone’s story is ultimately a story of the indomitable nature of the human spirit—and a reminder that determination and self-education can defy the deforming pressures that keep women and other disenfranchised groups down.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for The Blue Orchard includes discussion questions and a Q&A with author Jackson Taylor. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book. 

 

For Discussion

1. In the Prologue, Verna candidly describes herself and the circumstances of her arrest, even admitting some of her flaws. What was your impression of her after reading the Prologue? In what ways did this initial introduction of Verna influence how you viewed her throughout the story?

2. Compare Verna’s opinion of Dr. Crampton before she meets him to her view of him during their first encounter. How does their relationship change over the years, both on a professional and a personal level?

3. When Verna finds out Dora is assisting Dr. Crampton with abortions, she tells her that what she is doing is wrong and cites the nursing manual oath. Why does Verna then decide to work for Dr. Crampton? How does she regard the legal implications of what she’s doing?

4. Verna admits to Dewey, “I don’t think the world of men. They’ve always made me suffer” (page 158). Discuss Verna’s encounters and relationships with the various men in her life—Mr. Wertz, Murphy, Charles Dennis, Norm, and Dewey. Why does she continue to see Charles Dennis throughout the years despite his deception?

5. Share your thoughts on how marriage is portrayed in the novel. Why does Verna marry Dewey? At one point in the narrative she says, “I weep over how wonderful the promise of our union was. How did it all go so wrong?” (page 213). What factors contributed to the decline of their marriage?

6. What motivates Verna to succeed? Why is she able to rise above her circumstances in a way that her mother was never able to do? How much is Verna impacted by her mother’s attitude toward Buckley versus her daughters?

7. The time period in which The Blue Orchard is set was one of intense change in America and a precursor of the Civil Rights movement and Roe v. Wade. Discuss the social, racial, and political aspects of the time.

8. How did Dr. Crampton rise to such a position of prominence in Harrisburg? What led to his downfall? In what ways does Verna benefit from Dr. Crampton’s political connections?

9. Why does Verna leave Sam to be raised by her mother? After she learns that Sam has run away and joined the Army, she says to Dr. Crampton, “I’ve done the best I can” (page 221). What is your opinion of Verna as a mother? How do you think Verna would answer the question of whether or not she was a good mother?

10. “I think about how I used to lie awake and imagine dressers stuffed with cash, but I could not have guessed the high cost of having my dreams fulfilled,” says Verna (page 225). What, if anything, do you think she would do differently if given the chance? Why does Verna continue to spend so extravagantly even after Dr. Crampton advises her against it?

11. Why does Verna insist she’ll reveal the names in the ledger if she’s called to the witness stand? Did she do the right thing by accepting exoneration from the case or, as Dr. Crampton suggested, will she have to live with doubt in people’s minds since she was not acquitted by a jury? How is Verna changed by the trial?

12. When Verna destroys Dewey’s bushels of peaches, she says, “I smash for what I’ve become. A victim. Yet again” (page 341). Why does she see herself as a victim? What emotional impact does losing her profession have on Verna?

13. Why is Verna so determined to unite Sam with Elsa? Why is it important for her to bring her grandchild to America?

14. Does knowing that The Blue Orchard is based on the life of the author’s grandmother, Verna Krone, alter your perception of the story? How so? What is your overall impression of the novel and of Verna in particular?
 

 

 

A Conversation with Jackson Taylor

You say in the novel’s afterword that if you had known it would take you a decade to complete The Blue Orchard, you might never have started it. What kept you working on it all those years?

The inherent mystery was an engine. It had momentous strength and pulled me along. Perhaps others who have pursued family secrets will know what I mean, and perhaps the reader while turning the pages of the book will sense some of the curiosity and excitement I felt while making discovery.

 

The Blue Orchard is based on your grandmother’s life. Why was it important for you to share Verna’s story?

The lives of people we come from are filled with exquisite, concrete clues that can be examined to understand childhood, the world, and ourselves, and to recognize how many ways we resemble the rest of our species. The study of the real record adds perspective to the ways anyone might look at the youth of their parents or grandparents.

During the years of research, the historian’s voice in me kept questioning: How? Why? My grandmother wasn’t easily impressed by people, so I wanted to know the nature of this man who’d earned so much respect.

 

Verna overcame many obstacles to rise from poverty and become an independent woman of means. How unique was she for the time?

I like to imagine that she was somewhat unique for the illicit nature of her work, but leafing through her ledger and record, it amazes me still to see how many women were involved in the act of procurement. In that sense even though underground, they were hardly unique.

 

What challenges did you encounter while researching and writing the novel? What can you tell us about the process of blending fact and fiction?

The biggest obstacle was learning the name of the family who raised Dr. Crampton. Though I was given at least a half a dozen leads by various sources, that always referred to the wealthy, august families of Harrisburg, none of these leads panned out. I’d spend weeks tracking down one of these “descendents.” They were often quite elderly, living in nursing homes or under the care of their children. I’d introduce myself and the project and ask if Dr. Crampton might have been raised in their family. In voices shaky with age they’d say things like, “Well I never heard that,” or “If he was raised by us and was as prominent as you say, I think I would have known.” Though a few pondered that it might have been possible, not a single person could remember or confirm.

Earlier in the century there had been a fire in the records office at Howard University, where Dr. Crampton had earned his medical degree, so no records remained, but finally a wonderful librarian at the Moorland-Springarn Research Center found a scrap of paper dated 1903, with a Harrisburg address for Dr. Crampton on it. That led to a deed search which eventually revealed what had so long been forgotten. This significant bit of research took two years to complete.

As for blending fact and fiction? Hmmm . . . . I’d say it’s about proportion, the unusual phrase or detail, and working with and against the rule of probability. One of the things that helped me most was that I read every page of the Harrisburg Patriot from 1900 to 1960. That helped me see that the daily march of history is really much more subtle and revealing than the big iconic moments.

 

How did you make certain to present an honest portrait of Verna, both her good qualities and her flaws? Was there ever a tendency to gloss over certain aspects or incidents?

Verna could be deeply reflective about herself. I tried to weigh out and imagine those personal ruminations. It is also important for any writer to recognize that it is never going to be possible to tell “the” truth. The best we can aspire to is “a” truth, or a version of the truth as we might happen to see it.

 

You have said that for many years the nature of Verna’s work was a well-guarded secret. How have your family members reacted to The Blue Orchard and seeing her story in print?

It’s been varied. Some see it as a validation—I like to hope that my version of the truth has perhaps given them a sense of freedom. Some are ambivalent; some see it as a violation or a betrayal.

 

What can you tell us about the novel’s title and why it was selected?

It’s a metaphor that hovers over certain scenes of the book.

 

Abortion is still a sensitive subject in this country for people on both sides of the issue. Do you expect that the book will spark conversations about it?

My guess is that the arguments on abortion will continue uninterrupted and that most debaters will maintain their position. The subject stirs tremendous reaction in groups of our citizens— with often ill-considered consequence, blinding force, and violence. Such fervor deserves question.

One of the judges I interviewed, who as a young lawyer had helped the attorneys prepare the defense for Dr. Crampton, told me that he believed a major benefit of the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision was that it allowed for a clear separation between church and state as endorsed by our founding government documents. I thought that was interesting. It made me conscious of how many politicians defy that separation between church and state to curry favor with voters.

Another surprise was the discovery that no really definitive history of abortion in America has ever been written—and yet from colonial times forward there are accounts and records of all this activity—and in most states the practice was not illegal until the mid 1800s. A good deal of my time was spent reading whatever I could find on the subject.

This research, challenged my sort of simplistic, cinematic sense of history, particularly of the 1930s through ’50s, and the blanket historical statements frequently used to define a period. Often the only contrast given to the lives of women, was the fluctuation between a kind of short-lived but plucky Rosie the Riveter wartime apparition, and a prison of idealized middle-class domestic perfection largely drawn from television or advertising. It interested me to find that women in those times were more nuanced, decisive, and resourceful than certain narratives might have you think. Also, I came to understand how often the men were also wrestling with the confines of their role as breadwinner, hero, leader, benefactor, leader, and daddy.

 

Senators, congressmen, clergy, and White House administrators were among the people who referred women to Dr. Crampton. What would the ramifications have been if Verna had revealed the thousand of names in the ledger during the trial?

Verna told me that the judge would have probably thrown all of it out for contempt of court but that she intended to keep talking no matter what the judge said. There was something about the size of this quagmire that made it ungovernable. Perhaps we see the similar scale and problem when in our time a bank favorably restructures the failed debt of a large developer! But who knows, perhaps if some of the roots of voter gain for President Nixon or President Eisenhower had been revealed during an election American history would look very different?

 

How would you describe The Blue Orchard—and Verna—to people who have not yet read it?

It’s a novel about a woman who wrestles with adversity amid a particular time and history that is difficult for our country to come to terms with.

 

Will your next novel be rooted in history? What can you tell us about it?

It’s closer to our time, is set in Italy, has an urbane and highly literary narrator, concerns the break-up of a peppery marriage—the terrible contract that decrees marriage—and forgive me . . . I don’t intend to sound coy . . . but I’m still unknotting my intentions for the rest.

About The Author

Tom Cocotos

Jackson Taylor is the Associate Director of The New School's Graduate Writing Program, which he helped launch, and where he teaches. For more than fifteen years he has been the Director of The Prison Writing Program at PEN American Center. His short fiction has appeared in Spit, Pink, Moss and Punk, and his poems have appeared in Lit, Sleeping Fish, Witness, and others. For three years he worked at The New York Times in the Culture, Arts and Leisure, and the National desks. He holds a BA from Columbia and an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. He lives in Manhattan and Greenport.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Touchstone (January 12, 2010)
  • Length: 416 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781416596844

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Raves and Reviews

"Taylor is a master storyteller and his novel is riveting, substantial,
and unforgettable." —WALLY LAMB

"A work of overwhelming tenderness, unflinching veracity, delicacy, and
restraint. I was engaged and moved from start to finish by Jackson Taylor’s storytelling art."
—PHILLIP LOPATE, author of Notes on Sontag

"This novel re-creates wonderfully a time, a place, and a circumstance in American life
that drove women and men alike to break a law that could never—and will never—be obeyed.
I found myself stirred repeatedly."—VIVIAN GORNICK, author of Fierce Attachments

"The Blue Orchard is a classic, a great American novel that will astonish and quicken
dead and bored parts of our hearts. If Jackson Taylor never writes another word he has
made his mark with The Blue Orchard." —SAPPHIRE, author of Push

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