Jackson Taylor channeled his grandmother Verna Krone to create a fictionalized account of her life in his debut novel, The Blue Orchard. And quite a life it was. Verna Krone was born early in the 20th century to a poor family in rural mid-Pennsylvania. Her father, an Irish immigrant, was decades her mother's senior and never held a steady job.
When the book opens, Verna is 14, and her father is elderly and ill. Because the family is so desperate — Verna has two sisters and a brother — her mother takes her from school in order to work. Verna is heartbroken because she loves learning but goes to work as a domestic help on a local farm several hours walk away (the family owns no means of transportation).
Thus Verna begins her working life and her life dealing with grown men. She meets one man called Murphy who treats her as an adult should, but most other men in her life lie to her and mistreat her until she meets Dr. Crampton, a prominent physician in the Pennsylvania state capital Harrisburg. An unusual fellow for 1930's America, Dr. Crampton is a wealthy political insider and an African American. That Verna, a white woman, goes to work for him as a nurse raises eyebrows for many reasons. Still, she and Dr. Crampton prosper for many years, until they are eventually arrested. They have been performing abortions, something Verna wrestled with at first but came to accept and then believe in.
From a background of poverty, Verna Krone manages to climb her way to a spot near the center of Pennsylvania politics in the mid-20th century. Her story is fascinating, all the more so because the events are true. Jackson Taylor was working as a reporter for The New York Times when he began to chronicle his grandmother's life. He not only interviewed her but many others as well, and researched the newspaper accounts to which he often refers.
Perhaps that is why the book often seemed so long to me. It is as if Mr. Taylor felt compelled to include every significant detail in Verna's life, to the detriment of the story's pace. He creates a strong and consistent voice for Verna, no doubt aided by having memories of the real woman in his mind. Told completely from her perspective, almost as if writing a diary or speaking to someone, the book is a bit short on dialog and description that would be out of character.
All this is not to say that The Blue Orchard is not worth reading; it is, by far. I am very glad Mr. Jackson captured Verna's story, which lends valuable insight into the life of women in early- to mid-20th century America. I wish he could have started his book with the afterward, which details how he came to write it and his relationship to the characters. I also wonder what it would have been like had he pursued the non-fiction account he originally set out to create. His own growing up was crowded with secrets, which is an interesting story in itself. Perhaps fodder for another book?