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.
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The Blue Orchard
• Prologue •
Since my name has appeared in the newspaper following our arrest, my entire moral character is being drawn into question. In town, at the Market, I notice people finger-pointing and whispering, and upon quick return to my car on Broad Street, I see one enterprising soul has broken an egg on the windshield. Now I’m reluctant to even go downtown. Over the years I’ve always drawn a bit of attention, the oddball stare or squinting curiosity; there’s speculation, a certain notice of my clothes, whispered gossip. They might even know I’m a nurse.
People who don’t know Dr. Crampton might imagine him as some kind of back-alley butcher in a bad part of town, slicing open unfortunate women lying naked under a bare lightbulb. The truth, however, is that Dr. Crampton has for over half a century been our city’s leading Negro citizen. His widely respected medical practice opened in 1904, and prior to our arrest, no lawman would have dared tamper with him, for he is also a full-fledged member of a political machine as proudly crooked as any in the nation. He is the state’s deputy secretary of health and a vice-chairman of the Republican Party.
Yes, Dr. Crampton has always played his cards right, moving about town in king-sized late-model Lincolns, chauffeured by men who are sometimes as shockingly white as the gloves they wear. I’ve witnessed firsthand how Dr. Crampton throws money around; he greases big wheels, plays Daddy Benefactor, buys flowers, medicine, mortgages, baby carriages, and Negro votes, which for decades have been delivered to his Republican friends.
Not only is Dr. Crampton the undisputed leader of the Seventh Ward, which is colored, but in 1919 he founded the Negro YMCA, and he also sits on the governing boards of any number of banks, churches, medical groups, and charities. For me, it’s been an honor to work for this astonishing man, to attend the many tributes and testimonial dinners held on his behalf, where citations from governors and senators are bestowed. In fact, his commanding presence is such a certainty of life in our city that on the morning of the 14th of November the whole town gasps when we are arrested.
The police ransack his well-furnished yellow townhouse, root out the ground floor’s medical offices, then climb upstairs to his private quarters, where his closets are emptied, his dresser drawers dumped, his fine wardrobe tangled: silk ties, shoes, shirts, suspenders, and spats. In every room hand-knotted Persian rugs are heaved up and piled into mountains, leather-bound books are swept from mahogany shelving, and his collection of French portraits and American landscapes are pulled from the walls and stacked like firewood. Even the furnace in his basement and the meat in his kitchen freezer are examined.
A short time later the police proceed uptown to my own house at 2311 North Third Street. In their report they describe it as a three-story, red-brick dwelling with pillared porch and mansard roof. Recently our city’s ill-conceived Capitol extension project has caused many great houses in Harrisburg to decline, as angry displaced Negroes without the means to make repairs move farther uptown with every passing month. But everyone knows that if you live above MacClay Street, as I do, the neighborhood is unlikely to change. It will remain elegant, wealthy, and white. The police rarely have business here.
Dewey, my husband, answers the knock. The tough voices at the door alert me.
I quickly lie down on one of the beds in the dining room, pull a cover up over my clothes, and pretend to be ill.
The men enter. I can see the cops silently glance at each other as they count the number of beds in the downstairs rooms.
“You Verna Krone?”
“You work for Doctor Crampton?”
“I’m a licensed nurse,” I answer.
“Well, you’re under arrest for illegal surgery.”
I lie back as if too sick to move and let them search the house. Dewey follows them around like a bellhop waiting for a tip.
Left alone for a moment, my wits gather and a guise of tough calm overtakes me. I can’t believe they’ve stated the crime so obliquely, but of course they can’t make an arrest without making some kind of charge. “Relax,” I whisper to myself. “Relax into the conflict.” Isn’t that what Dr. Crampton would do? From the hallway closet upstairs, one of them removes enamel basins—a full dozen—several cartons of sanitary napkins, and some freshly sterilized syringes. It all gets lugged downstairs. “Why all the Kotex?” the fat one asks.
“Is there a law against menstruation?”
They cringe. Female stuff. My belligerence irritates them.
“Why all these syringes?”
“I’m a nurse. I make house calls,” I say, sounding plenty peeved to be answering such questions. Meanwhile I’m relieved to see they’ve found nothing of significance. The joke’s on them. A day earlier and the house would have been full of women.
They want to take me downtown, but I tell them I am too sick to travel. They’re puzzled, demand to know what ails me.
“I’ve got a serious condition with my vertebrae,” I say. “My orthopedist has prescribed total bed rest. Take me downtown and you’ll cause permanent injury to my spine.”
They don’t like it but are afraid to call my bluff.
“We’ve got orders,” the taller one stammers.
“Well, you’ll contend with Harvey Taylor if you try to move me,” I say, making tough, like I could wrestle and hog-tie both of them.
The detectives are dumbfounded. Harvey Taylor runs the state and these boys know it. For the time being my lie works. They exit.
The night drags. I lie awake and speculate, afraid to use the phone, afraid to leave the house, afraid to fear the worst. Early the next morning the detectives are back and, spine or no spine, insist I accompany them to the courthouse, where Dr. Crampton has been sitting up all night waiting to see the judge. My condition requires me to put on quite an act of pain, suffering into my black cashmere coat and fox-fur collar, hobbling out to the car, wincing at every step. It’s all for show, but if I keep it up, maybe it will allow me to return home and not be placed in a holding cell.
When I enter the courthouse, Dr. Crampton lifts his gaze to look at me. His lips press together in the faintest recognition. I nod, almost imperceptibly, pretend to barely know him. Our courthouse isn’t segregated, but on that day it might as well be, for I take a seat on the far side of the waiting room, as far away from Dr. Crampton as possible.
If I had it to live over again, I’d do it differently. I’d find my courage, sit beside him, renounce the detachment, wide as an ocean, that pulls me from the dear man who is losing everything. But on that day—after being arrested—I will not stir. I will not admit to feeling anything for him: no good can come of it.
Our arrest is teaching me the limits of my daring. Even now, it surprises me how before that day I never really accepted that Dr. Crampton was colored. I preferred to view him as the sole member of a separate species, unique, unbound by the conventions and problems of ordinary Negroes. But of course he’s not white either, and now trouble shows his skin growing ever darker and affirms the folly of my self-serving vision. Dr. Crampton is being stripped of his special privilege, and it’s time to recognize that he is a Negro, and I am white.
Till the day I die, I will regret that day, and how the safety of my own race seduces me to disengage from his, to suddenly follow previously ignored codes. The change is subtle, almost unnoticeable; only he can detect it. The notice gets chiseled on his heart: Let your ship of misery pull away, I am staying ashore.
In America we are born knowing a Negro can pull a white woman down simply by association. And a Negro on his way down? Well, perish the thought.
It isn’t done. It isn’t done. It isn’t done by me.
Affections for a Negro man that run as deep as mine are not appropriate. They menace. Imagine what can come of them. Probably a majority of people believe our relationship is or was romantic or sexual. They assume he lusts for me and I for him. They wink at the notion of a professional partnership, a collegial cooperation between a Negro man and a white woman.
By the time we see the judge, it’s late in the day and I’ve been named as codefendant. My brain slows like cold molasses, stuck with one thought: Are we in for a soft rap on the knuckles or a real prison sentence? No one seems to know.
“Not guilty,” I say, following Crampton’s lead, trying to sound confident. Once the bail money has been posted, we are free to go. Latenight phone calls go out to Dr. Crampton’s friends, but now, suddenly, few can afford to take his call. The situation is too dangerous.
Pending the trial’s outcome, and because of the unpleasant attention I drew at the Broad Street Market, I’ve retreated here to the farm, where I’ll stay until all this has been decided. It’s a fruit farm, one hundred acres, less than an hour north of Harrisburg, with a breezeway connecting the main house to a small stone summer kitchen. Inside is a big black range, where in warm weather I cook and do the canning—and at any time of year come to sit when I need to brood on something.
Crampton has always warned me not to keep records and maybe he’s right. Maybe I should’ve just written our business down in the dirt and let the rain settle it. But now, after the arrest, I’m glad a record exists, hidden in the summerhouse under the walnut dry sink, a dishwashing stand no longer used in this day and age. Here two gallon jugs of vinegar rest on a slab of soapstone, and when all that’s taken out, two boards can be lifted to reveal a false bottom.
The ledger stored there measures five by seven inches and sits more than an inch thick. The cover is worn and battered from fifteen years of duty. Moisture and passing years have warped the paper, but each page lists the names of nine patients, complete with addresses and phone numbers—front and back make eighteen—the entire book holding more than five thousand names. Each woman was also required to list a person we could contact in case of an emergency. When you add those names in, ten thousand people are listed. The book is a map not just of Harrisburg but the entire state: Main Line mansions near Philadelphia, shacks in the coal regions up north, missions on skid rows everywhere. Sometimes, in the margins, I note who referred a particular girl, inking in senators, congressmen, and clergy. Harrisburg is only ninety miles from Washington, D.C., and a handful of referrals have even come from White House administrators working under Roosevelt, Truman, and most recently Eisenhower. Can anyone on this list get our case thrown out of court?
Some people live without compasses, and for years I’ve counted myself among them, roaming whatever moral direction I pleased, changing course if and only when it suited me. But the arrest brings uncertainty. On the one hand, I’ve always believed discretion for our patients to be sacred. On the other, I didn’t expect to retire so soon. Why should we take the fall when ten thousand others are complicit? The ledger is a dangerous double-edged weapon. It can be guided to favor our case or turned to give evidence against us.
I leaf through the book and remember the faces, the horrible stories: incest, beatings, rape—and ordinary housewives who just didn’t want another baby. Every case was different: girls under twenty, wide-eyed and frightened, women over forty, tired and drawn, career girls, sensible and sure, tough girls who often cried more than the others, bad girls who were foulmouthed and mean, the sick, the abused, the adulterous, the jilted, the lovelorn, the mentally infirm, and of course the damned. We saw every religion, every educational background, and every size of bank account. Some of the women hemorrhaged, and there was that lone woman from Lewiston, an attractive bookkeeper, the only patient in fifteen years we ever lost. She bled to death.
Some of the women befriended me and over passing time still send me Christmas cards, grateful to have been in the hands of a good doctor and not left to one of the butchers. Other women came and went and are long forgotten. Our practice was the place where women’s terrors intersected women’s dreams. And would I have cared about any of it if I hadn’t also been making piles of money?
I’m forty-four years old, and suddenly I see how I’ve blinded myself to the many small, regrettable qualities I possess—pride and greed foremost among them. Over the years a series of tiny transgressions has led to even greater ones, and now I’m left to weigh the stone I carry around where my heart used to be.
I’ve never been good at keeping a diary. Looking back, the age and experience I’ve acquired seem to heighten my naiveté and ignorance. I read my old words and feel stupid all over again, and like many people who keep records, I’ve grown obsessed with hiding this one, always fearing the secret reader who will stumble across it and snoop on me. Yet now I realize I’ve always written with just that person in mind. Many times I’ve thought of tearing up the book or placing it in the fire, but I’ve held on. I stare at it and somehow its pages lay my life bare. Herein I see myself as others might.
Still, this ledger cannot replace what I remember, for now I see that what one doesn’t write is often more important than what gets written. Perhaps none of this matters to anyone but me, but I am someone, and suddenly it seems important not to forget that lonely, dirt-poor girl I once was—if only to know how I ended up here, to know how I became Verna Krone.
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.
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.