SELF POSSESSION, SELF INVENTION
The Blue Orchard
The Blue Orchard, Jackson Taylor’s first novel, is the story of an indomitable woman with a nature that seems to defy deforming pressures. If it sounds a bit like it has affinities with Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, one is not far off the mark.
The Blue Orchard is also an elegant testament to determination and self-education. The opening of the novel introduces Verna Krone, a mature, agile witted woman caught in a test of character. In the opening, Verna already has mastered a balance with the world: one “suffers” memory with personal dexterity; one acquires and executes professional and personal skills; one pragmatically “creates” a life. At all costs, one keeps one’s dignity intact. In the opening of the book, a colleague, a husband, and several police officers set the tale spinning.
In this three-section novel, Verna is the child of an Irish immigrant family in Perry County, Pennsylvania. The family lives “hand-to-mouth,” food and rent are challenges. In 1929, rural southeastern Pennsylvania, is a grim landscape offering little “low hanging fruit.” How is an emerging teenage girl with inner volition, scant direction, and almost no prospects other than hard laborious hours at the beckon of others to move into the world and find emotional and economic stability?
The possibility of school fades away early for Verna. So, too, she is impelled into developing her attention and exploring her self-reliance. Verna’s earliest loops from home, jobs, and relationships are marked as false starts, with exploitations and mistakes. Consequences come early to those impelled unprotected into an ignoble landscape. The fallout of one life quickly interfuses with the good and bad decisions of others. Gender, character, race, and social position interchange with economic options and physical and social well-being. Unlike Hester, who has an illegitimate daughter, Verna has an illegitimate son.
Verna is a survivor. She heeds her deepest laws of self-evidence. Her powers of observation sustain her. She not only acquires experience; but she also learns from her observations. She is able to integrate new information into her enduring rubrics. The shape of her attention steadily unfolds throughout the novel. The rewards and betrayals of empathy and questions of decency and justice abound.
Attempting to improve her station in life (and that of her family), Verna finds her way from scraping out a diurnal existence to hiring out as a cook and housekeeper. She embraces the notion that acquiring new skills brings her new options. By 1939, she finagles her way back to formal education. She graduates from nursing school in Harrisburg (located a mere 38 miles from the Mason-Dixon line):
Everything about the ritual and ceremony is special. Mom comes with Hazel and Myrtle. For the occasion, they wear new hats—black pillboxes with flowers and ribbon which Mom pays for using money from Abe’s tannery pension. Norm stops by and cheers when he hears my name called. I’m touched that though he worked in the morning, he dashed home to change into his suit.
In the second section of the book, Verna continues in her exploration of self-possession. Her career as a nurse leads her to closer contact with a wider variety of people. The questions and examples that her life encounters bring her to a deeper understanding of her own vantage. People do not live in spheres of perfection, but struggle and adapt to circumstances. Much can be learned in formal education; much can be learned by necessity. Along with application and practice always comes struggle. Innocence, liberty, license, and malice inter-mingle. As do race, privilege, and religion. There are the rational laws of the land and the rules and oath of nursing; and then there are subtler, inner laws. By nursing others (by “seeing firsthand, every day, how fallible people are”), Verna finds her own balance. Her roommate, whose duties include recovery nursing, introduces her to professional options. Verna can drive the ’29 DeSoto they need for transporting patients. The narrative is rich and clear. Eventually, Verna is employed by Dr. Crampton, a well-to-do and highly respected African-American doctor who performs illegal abortions.
When Dora finally comes out she’s accompanied by a new patient, an older woman this time, looks pretty well-to-do, fox furs and clip-on earrings that sparkle. They hold umbrellas and wear drizzle boots to protect their shoes. We quickly drive away.
Verna also finds, Dewey Krone, the man who becomes her husband. They enjoy recreational drives in the country together:
It seems, in life, we are always being warned not to get lost, and yet it is in the risk of the unknown that you know you’re fully alive. It grows dark, you’re low on gas, everything is like a dream, and then suddenly something in you recognized something in the landscape. You reach a familiar road and are on your way home again.
The novel is richer than a drive in the country. It moves episodically and is fraught with detail and meaning. Verna and Dewey eventually marry:
I show the dress to Mom and she says, “I’m so glad you’re not trying to wear white.” I don’t know if she means because my reputation is spoiled or because she thinks white makes me look big. It really doesn’t matter because as a nurse wearing white every day, I long for another color.
Color (as class divide) is a major element in this novel. The Krones and Dr. Crampton are living in the years of Jim Crow America. Verna’s attention and understanding of the world continues to unfold in the compromises of her financially and personally rewarding, but clandestine, service. The Second World War rumbles along in the narrative. Machinations of local political machinery also rumble along in the narrative. Prosperity gives way to excesses, tests, and failures of character.
At the beginning of section three, one is again reminded stylistically of The Scarlet Letter:
Every town has a man who is permitted to break the law....He snares many a citizen in his own vice, knows what secrets lie beyond the town green and which sins grip the banker, the politician, or the priest.
Taylor’s novel—while set in the state capital of Pennsylvania—correlates in the larger present political memory to the federal delays and mishandlings of Katrina in New Orleans. Dr. Crampton and Ms. Krones—a doctor noted for his self-invention and a nurse noted for her self-possession—operate as a small, dignified part of a larger machine.
There’s talk about opening the downtown Central YMCA to both white and colored members.
Much of the world is about “sketching out patterns …with a large black pencil like Mom used to.” Dr. Crampton’s assets are frozen under an IRS investigation and Verna is “burdened with half a dozen shopping bags.”
“He who tells even the smallest part of a secret loses his hold on the rest.”
The Blue Orchard comes full circle. Throughout the nation, the sharp (and equally blinding) lines of the old dialectic—the old Jim Crow order—begin to give way. The issue of abortion in a bedrock Puritan nation will burn on to future generations. Verna Krones is not resolved into simplicity. Within her own family she claims: “We’re all too tired to keep our resentments alive.” But her dignity is intact and she has fruitfully marshaled her way through.
Taylor’s novel is grounded, also, in the great tradition of the American novel. Besides Hawthorne, there are affinities with Faulkner and Morrison. The Blue Orchard, Taylor’s first outing, should be at the top of every savvy reader’s book list.