Monday, October 18, 2010

Review: The Blue Orchard

Summary: 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. -- Touchstone

I was so excited when a member of my book club selected THE BLUE ORCHARD by Jackson Taylor for our October meeting. THE BLUE ORCHARD actually takes place in Harrisburg, PA -- just a few miles from where I live. Needless to say, there aren't a lot of books that take place in Harrisburg; and as a result, the book has been getting a ton of coverage. In fact, it seems like every local book club I know has already read and discussed this book.

I had been meaning to read this novel for quite a few months, and I even went to an event where Mr. Taylor discussed the book. After hearing the author describe some of the historical events that took place here, my curiosity was definitely piqued. Plus, the novel was based on Mr. Taylor's grandmother's life as an abortion nurse -- how interesting does that sound? I thought it sounded like a winner, but unfortunately, it wasn't until my book club gave me a deadline that I finally got around to reading it.

Overall, I definitely enjoyed THE BLUE ORCHARD. It was an incredible story with some pretty fascinating characters. THE BLUE ORCHARD tells the story of Verna, a young nurse who accepts a job with an African-American abortion doctor. Keep in mind that this book takes place primarily in the 1940s and 1950s when abortion was illegal and blacks did not have equal rights. Verna's story from a poor farm girl to a wealthy abortion nurse is an amazing one. And this book once again proved to me that truth can be stranger than fiction. (I know....this book is a novel -- but it was heavily based on Mr. Taylor's grandmother's life!)

THE BLUE ORCHARD is told through the eyes of Verna, the author's grandmother. At the beginning of the story, Verna is just a young girl who is forced out into the world to help provide for her family. Her story is a tragic one -- she faces a cruel boss, a rape, and an unwanted pregnancy. And that's just the beginning of Verna's woes. My heart absolutely went out to her, and I was reminded of how many people were thrown into horrible situations because of the Depression. Ultimately though, Verna was a strong girl who did what she had to do just to survive.

And, I think Verna continued to be an incredibly determined woman throughout this novel, even when her luck changed. After a great deal of work, she eventually received a degree in nursing and began working for a successful abortion doctor. She also began making more money than she ever imagined possible. Even though she made quite a few sacrifices in her personal life so she could provide for her family -- like leave her child with her mother, I found myself disliking her throughout much of the novel. While I understood some of her choices and I can't even say that I wouldn't have made similar ones in the same desperate situation, I still couldn't get past her selfishness and her feelings that she was a victim. It wasn't until the end of the novel, when Verna became a grandmother, that I found myself warming up to her again.

One of the main reasons that I was drawn to this story was that I was very interested in the history of Harrisburg and especially the capital expansion project.  I loved it when there was mention of a place that was familiar to me. (Ironically, some of the characters lived just a few miles away from me in Mechanicsburg, PA -- I probably drive by the house quite often!) I was appreciated reading all of the insight into the corruption in the Harrisburg government (I guess it's good to know that some things never change!); and I will never look at our beautiful capitol building the same way again because the expansion project displaced many African American families. There is no doubt that this novel was filled with fascinating information for those of us who live in this area. In fact, I was blown away by how much Mr. Taylor knew about the city -- it's obvious that he researched the heck out of Harrisburg while writing this novel.

However, despite my interest in all-things Harrisburg, I did feel like part of the novel (maybe around 40 pages) was kind of bogged down with political background. I understood why the author wanted to include this information, but I felt as if it kind of got away from his grandmother's story. And then I wondered, if it was too much information for me, then how would someone who wasn't from this area feel about all of these details? Just a thought....

THE BLUE ORCHARD was a wonderful book club pick. I think part of the reason is that my book club loved that the story took place in our own backyard; however, we also had a great deal to discuss. In fact, we had some differing opinions on the character of Verna and her role as a victim (which always makes for a fun meeting.) And I think all of would agree that it was one of our best discussions. There is a reading guide available, but we didn't use it -- although we did manage to cover almost all of the questions. Some of the topics you might want to explore include racial relations, the ethics of abortion, mother-child relationships, alcoholism, marriage, and secrets.
I found THE BLUE ORCHARD to be a very interesting read. It's an insightful look at the 1940s and 1950s, and it just might make you think about racial relations and the issue of abortion. I definitely recommend it!

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this novel.


(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I've been wanting to read this one. The reviews have been very good. Thanks for sharing yours Julie

Beth F said...

I have wanted to read it for the same reasons you did -- because it takes place in our state and it is based on a true story. I will give it a shot. I won't have a book club to keep me on track and I am not as familiar with Harrisburg as you are, so we'll see if I finish the book.

bermudaonion said...

I had no idea there were abortion doctors back then. I knew abortions were done, but I always thought they were some clandestine affair. It sounds like Verna had quite a life!

Anonymous said...

@Beth F
I am actually not even from PA and have little knowledge of Harrisburg and still found it very enjoyable.
I picked this up at the library just on a whim and I really enjoyed it. Thanks for your review.


rhapsodyinbooks said...

This sounds pretty interesting. I don't know a lot about the history of Pa, aside from Gettysburg!

Laura at Library of Clean Reads said...

It's fun to read a book that takes place where you live. It does give one a different perspective of their own city.

Anonymous said...

This sounds fascinating because it does deal with so many different issues. It seems like a great book club book. Thanks for the review.

Unknown said...

This story sounds fascinating and I love your review! I am always excited by books that are set in and around places I know well (several of Nelson DeMille's are set where I grew up and where my family lives) and I think it's fun to know places and areas discussed in a book. I don't know PA very well, aside from The Schuykill where I rowed in college! but I think this is still a captivating story. It always amazes me when I think about how different some things were in our country not that long ago such as the situation for African Americans in some states in the 30s & 40s.

I am listing this book on my tbr list and hope to read it soon.

~ Amy

Mystica said...

My knowledge of this period is rather sketchy so I'd like to read it. Its not available locally as well so thank you for the review. Will make a note of it.

Anonymous said...

Sounds great, would love to read this one.

Anonymous said...

I am reading it and enjoying it immensely.