Saturday, August 14, 2010

Congo Nurse

By Ruth Ives, ©1963


Although tempers flared in the heat of the small African village and the tension mounted between the villagers and the hospital staff, dedicated NURSE ANDREA BARTLETT knew she had no other choice—nursing was her career and these people needed her help. She had other ties:
DEXTER STEWART—the handsome young doctor whom she had known for years but didn’t quite understand...

PIERRE DESSEAU—the wealthy and debonair Frenchman, owner of a large coffee plantation, who wanted Andrea to share his life...

But Andrea also knew that in the case of these two men, only her heart could make the choice...



GRADE: B


REVIEW:
Nurse Andrea Bartlett and Dr. Dexter “Rusty” Stewart grew up together in small-town Piedmont, NH. (In point of fact, there is no Piedmont, NH, though there is a Piermont, just west of the White Mountain National Forest.) Now they are in Bakavu province in the Congo, working at the Lusamba mission hospital, because their mutual mentor from Piedmont, who runs the mission, has asked them to come. (There is no Bakavu province, either, but a city called Bukavu, and a province called Lusambo.)

Rusty is ambivalent about his work in Africa, and agrees to a one-year contract only because he feels it will further his career once he gets back to the U.S. Andrea is naturally disappointed in Rusty’s lack of dedication. She also disapproves of his engagement to wealthy New Yorker Lisa Caldwell, who she fears is trying to set him up in “a soft practice in a swank Park Avenue apartment.” When Lisa arrives at the clinic with the iron lung she has purchased at Rusty’s requst, Andrea accuses her, “You just want him as another trophy in your scalp collection. … He deserves more … than living as a social ornament among your friends.”

For her part, Andrea is pressed to marry local landowner Pierre Desseau, who lives in a luxurious plantation house with Louis XVI gilt chairs, a French provincial tester bed with silken hangings, and a Venetian mirror. She is charmed by him, and enjoys kissing him, but she is turned off by “his brutal attitude toward the natives.” On his plantation “even the gentle moonlight could not soften the squalor and pitiful poverty evident among the natives there.” She points out the contrast between his house and theirs, and he answers her, “There is much you do not understand about these people. Do not try to do everything at once for them, cherie. They have lived as they are for hundreds of generations, and they are happy with their own ways. Changes do not come overnight. … Here on my plantation I try to give them a better life in accordance with their own ways.” He explains that he gives each man land, and supports them if their own crops fail. (While he is clearly taking the role of the great white master, it’s nonetheless an interesting debate, particularly in light of how things are shaping up in Iraq and Afghanistan these days.)

The natives are restless, and a guerrilla troop kidnaps Andrea and Rusty. The pair eventually escapes and returns to the hospital just in time to warn that it is about to be attacked by the guerrilla army. Lisa naturally goes to pieces, and Pierre’s plantation is burned to the ground by the insurgents before the U.N. trucks roll in to save the day. Pierre and Lisa exit stage left, in a helicopter, back to France and the U.S. respectively, leaving Andrea to assist Rusty in surgery and then receive his obligatory proposal of marriage.

It’s not badly written, and it was not a chore to get through this book. But I couldn’t bring myself to care about the characters, which seem flat and perfunctory. There is little medicine in the book, apart from the requisite clamps and severed arteries and deft, gloved fingers. Africa plays a bigger part, though the book is ambivalent about race. Natives are trusted and competent workers in the hospital, but in times of trouble “the whites of their eyes in their dark faces still rolled with fear.” The opening scene in the native village, to which Rusty and Andrea have traveled to care for the chief’s daughter, who is sick with polio, is not overtly patronizing but does make it plain that “they were a backward people,” “poor and ignorant” “savages.” When the chief’s wives wail over the child, Rusty shouts, “This girl is sick, but it’s not with a Wog curse!” (The girl is eventually saved by Lisa’s iron lung.) Andrea’s response is more charitable: “She could understand the feelings of the native women toward things that were strange and incomprehensible to them. Africa, and the Congo, was that way to her.”

The cover is a near miss: not bad, but it would have been better if the male figure looked less like a hobo. Which is appropriate for what lies inside: While not a complete waste of time, this book should not be the first one you reach for.

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