The Blue Orchard
The Blue Orchard, set in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania from the 1920s to the late 1950s, is the fictionalized story of Verna Krone, who was the author’s grandmother. This is a remarkable woman’s story, with many dimensions and a tragic secondary character: Verna’s employer, the influential Dr. Crampton, who was a black physician with status across the as-yet-unbroken color line.
The first chapters are the familiar story of a destitute and exploited rural girl’s thorny path to education and a paying job. (She became a licensed nurse.) When Verna begins to work for Dr. Crampton, she witnesses southern-style race relations north of the Mason-Dixon and the timeless winking partnership between big money, local police, and politicians. Her rise to respectability and Dr. Crampton’s ability to deliver copious political and financial aid to his own oppressed community are based on the nature of their medical practice. Competent white doctors of that era neither treated venereal disease nor performed abortions. Dr. Crampton was a physician who left moral judgments to his patients, and therefore became the one to whom “respectable” professionals referred such cases. Judges, star high school athletes, wealthy college boys and Washington politicians with girlfriends in trouble all came because they knew him to be thorough and compassionate.
Initially, I read The Blue Orchard for the hard-times, hard-luck woman’s story and for the evocative, dark Depression- era detail. As Verna gets an education, a good job, money, and, finally, marriage, the story becomes a political tell-all, with emphasis on Harvey Taylor’s Republican machine. Beyond the heroine’s personal struggle, this novel is an enthralling meditation on race, the low status of women, and the enduring nature of political and social hypocrisy. Highly recommended.