Verna Krone leaves school after eighth grade to help her family get by. She’s sent to help out at a farm, where the master of the house leers at her and she misses her family regularly. She doesn’t stay long, though, and through a series of jobs moves herself up in the world until she makes a connection that enables her to become a nurse. Verna sees her true purpose in life as helping people and somehow she ends up helping a well-respected black doctor perform abortions, a profession that at this point in history could never lead to anything good.
This book was incredibly compelling for me from beginning to end. We find out right at the start that Verna is helping the doctor with his abortions, then head back into the past to learn about her life and how she got there. Hers is really a very sad story of a woman constantly used and mistreated by men, which makes her hard and often unyielding – it’s no wonder she wants to help other women get out of their mistakes. She has enough bad relationships to make anyone wary of men.
I loved that this was essentially a true story rewritten in fiction. Part of me wondered if it would have actually been better as non-fiction, but I think it did its job really well. It does contain a number of little messages within; first and foremost that money isn’t really all that brings happiness. I think that, for most people, this is pretty obvious, but Verna was poor for so long that she truly thought money would solve her problems. It also focuses a lot on local politics towards the middle and end and the level of corruption was extremely depressing. I know these political machines existed to gain votes, but that doesn’t always make them easy.
The novel also deals with racial politics, especially at the end. Because Verna is white, she receives natural advantages, even when she’s poor. This is contrasted drastically with the doctor, who is black, and they have a number of uncomfortable interactions where the reader can simply feel the prejudice between them, the wrongness of it, and a desire to eradicate it.
Taylor’s choice to write the story in first person made Verna as a character very easy to feel close to despite her faults. I kept hoping for her life to get better, for her to learn a bit more about the good side of life, but she’s constantly battered on all sides. I did wish that we could have known a little more about the older Verna, when she became the author’s grandmother. Instead it ends just before that. But I think it’s a good sign that I was eager for more, to see how Verna kept on changing and growing as a person even into old age.
The Blue Orchard is a fascinating book that explores many issues of its time effectively and compelling. It’s the perfect historical fiction choice for those interested in a variety of aspects of postwar American life and I’d definitely recommend it.
I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free from the publisher for review.