By Belinda Dell, ©1959
“Andrews the adding-machine—is that how you think of me? Put the right instrument in his hand and he’ll perform an operation: save his patient from choking and he’ll take it for granted. All coolness and efficiency but without human qualities!” Doctor Gil Andrews said to Nurse Clare Edmonds, soon after her arrival at Kahldi Hospital in Kashmir. Nurse Clare’s feelings for Doctor Gil were, in fact, very different from her feelings for an adding-machine—but how could she tell him so?
“This little town is absolutely dominated by these medical types, and unless you put your foot down you’ll get cold compresses with your lunch, and vaccination statistics with your dinner.”
“Any man has moments in his life that won’t bear looking into.”
I have to say that when I pick up a VNRN with more than 120 pages—and this one has 191—a certain feeling of dread comes over me. Almost 200 pages for a nurse romance novel? Does the author really have that much that needs to be said, or does she just think she does? Yes, I have been burned in the past. And so the page count, in addition to the cover, which must be acknowledged as not one of the genre’s finest, made me less that confident when I picked up Hospital in Kashmir.
And how wrong I was. This is a very cute book, with a pretty ending (an extremely rare find in the VNRN) and picturesque scenes, absolutely worth reading.
Clare Edmonds is following her best friend from nursing school when she takes a job in Kashmir. She’s desperately needed, as they have 300 patients but only six nurses and two doctors. There’s a snafu with her transportation, however; the car and driver who will take her the last leg of the trip have fallen through. Walton Parker, an engineer who does a lot of work near her hospital, takes her on the 12-hour drive, and en route, they strike up a relationship—not long after her arrival in the village of Srinagar, everyone is convinced they are to be engaged. But Dr. Gil Andrews, Walton’s best friend, warns Clare that Walton’s fancies are fleeting. Sure enough, after a month-long trip to London, Walton returns with a cooler heart. The village is disgusted with Walton, and pities Clare. For her part, Clare resents the community’s investment in her love life. “Why must everyone without exception assign her to Walton? Why mightn’t she be allowed to have opinions and feelings of her own on the subject?”
In the hospital, she quickly establishes herself as a dream nurse. During a surgery early on, she proves her worth when she saves a patient who stops breathing. Later, Dr. Gil tells her breathlessly that he now has “the feeling of having somebody at my side who would know what to put into my hand without a word from me.” They get to chatting, and it turns out that the reason Gil is so dispassionate is that he was in love once, long ago … with a woman who let him down, utterly and completely … Alma was a rich woman, but she couldn’t bring herself to marry a poor man. That’s why Gil now feels that cowardice, “to be afraid and not overcome your fear,” is “moral degradation,” the worst possible human failing.
Not long after that, Gil and Clare take a day off and go skiing, and on their walk back to their car, he takes her to a bridge made of a single untrimmed pine tree trunk, 40 feet above a ravine, with just a single rope for a handrail. Clare distinguishes herself by screaming, throwing herself to the ground, and absolutely refusing to cross. That does cool things somewhat between the two. Then, who should show up on the step of the nurse’s bungalow, but Alma herself! She’s strong, beautiful, tall, rich, a mountain climber, an excellent horsewoman, pretty much everything you could want to be. Except that she’s not very nice. She toys with Gil, who does not want his past with her known. And she works hard to win over Walton, even though she is clearly out of his league, and besides, he bores her. So to better do both at the same time, she convinces Walton to bring her with him and Gil on their planned three-week trip to climb the 14,000-foot Mt. Keung. They require a chaperone, so Clare, who clearly cannot tolerate heights and has never climbed anything more than the stairs to the next floor, is enlisted to go along. To give her credit, she is aware how ludicrous the whole situation is. But she’s a good sport, though she is buffeted emotionally, watching Alma heartlessly cast Walton aside and make passes at Gil, who despite their past seems to be taking her back, hand over fist.
A very nice couple of chapters detail the trip up the mountain, with base camps, Sherpas, and altitude sickness. It brought back memories of Into Thin Air (Jon Krakauer, ©1997), down to the calamity that leaves several members of their party injured. You won’t be surprised to hear that Clare is called on to save the day, but she does so in a way that is true: She is still quivering with fear and too dizzy to move at the prospect of the ridge dropping away next to her, and her trek up the mountain is only a partial success, but it’s enough to get the job done. (A helicopter neatly gets her back down the mountain, which was just not going to happen under her own steam.)
Back in Srinagar, there are the usual tangled relationships and misunderstandings to clear away, but this is nicely managed, without inducing dry heaves in the reader. I do enjoy the bit of armchair travel these books sometimes provide, and though the general feeling of life in Clare’s hospital community, though mostly Caucasian, was well-drawn, I didn’t get as good a view of the Kashmiri countryside as I had hoped for. There is really not one racist remark in the entire book, and even the sexism was pretty low-key. While Alma, who is in almost all ways superlative, is not a woman anyone ends up marrying, the more subdued Clare is not exactly a mouse, either; she tosses off her share of snappy remarks, and her nursing skills are obviously outstanding. And when one man threatens to beat his wife “within an inch of her life” if she wears a red sari to please Dr. Gil, the wife—an MD on the hospital staff—sarcastically responds, “Isn’t he wonderful?” So all in all, this book (hideous as its cover may be) deserves a spot on the bookshelf.