By Rose Dana (pseud. William E. Daniel Ross), ©1966
Following in her missionary father’s footsteps, Nurse Grace gave up her comfortable city job to work in the small Arctic hospital. But she hadn’t counted on the young surgeon—and her hopeless love for him. Or on the violence that suddenly erupted in the tiny community. Or on the plane crash that brought a vital young stranger into her life. The Arctic winter was torn by violence—and she was shaken by a whirlwind in her heart.
“The past was as real to him as the scar on his cheek.”
“He had a strong, distinguished-looking face, even with half of it lacerated and bloodstained.”
“When I first landed here you all annoyed me. Since then I’ve changed. I’ve grown to hate you.”
“You’re a pleasant change from these little brown-skinned gals.”
Not many vintage nurse romance novels have as much going on as Arctic Nurse. This book actually makes use of its setting, allowing us to experience (in an admittedly limited way) what the Arctic is like. We get a fair amount of racism toward the native Eskimos, but it’s not your standard, straightforward prejudice; the white population is there primarily to assist the natives, and the interface between cultures of different technological levels is a complicated question with no real answer. So this book actually gives you something to think about, a rarity in the VNRN. (The only other VNRN that attempts a discussion on colonialism I’ve seen is Congo Nurse.)
Grace Barrow is on her third year in the Arctic at the hospital on Kovik Island, somewhere in way northern Canada. She’s doing this because she feels like she is helping her father, who was killed when she was five years old doing similar work. Dr. Mark Windsor came to the Arctic after he lost his fiancée in a car accident: He’d been driving them home from a party at which he had been drinking, and now he never touches the stuff, “refusing to join them even in a festive glass of wine at Christmas and New Year’s, because he blamed his drinking for the accident.” This is the first time I’ve ever seen the risks of drunk driving mentioned in any VNRN, though the characters certainly do it on a regular basis. Of course, Mark, who “could have had a brilliant future in any great hospital had come to bury his talent in this sixty-bed Arctic outpost hospital.” This is a more popular theme, that the genius doctor would better serve humanity in a city hospital. Because, as everyone knows, rural and non-white populations only rate sub-par physicians. Though the idea that general practice doctors can’t possibly be brilliant, that the best minds must specialize, lives on today. But I shouldn’t get started on that little diatribe.
There is “quite a sizable native village” on the island, and at one point 50 natives gather to hear news of a comrade who is sick in the hospital. They are balanced, or maybe outweighed, by six white characters: two doctors, two shopkeepers, a Mountie, and Grace. We are repeatedly given the white characters’ fondness for their brown neighbors: “Grace had come to understand and love the amiable, broad-faced people in their colorful woolen and fur jackets.” The two races even intermingle on occasion, though with mostly limited success, such as in the case of the two male Eskimo hospital attendants: “Even though they were well trained and had been educated at the mission schools this place still spoke of magic to them.”
Then there’s Konala, an Eskimo woman who has trained as a nurse in Toronto, where she was jilted by a white doctor. She is a perfect means to introduce paternalistic attitudes about Eskimos, such as, “Konala was living proof that the natives could adapt themselves to the twentieth century.” When Konala says her half-brother seems “filled with a wicked spirit,” Dr. Mark chides, “We don’t believe in wicked spirits do we, Konala? I mean, after all we’re much too well educated for that.” Grace warns the Mountie, Bert, about his growing closeness to Konala, saying he should be careful not to break her heart. “The natives don’t always understand the subtleness of our relationships,” she tells him. Konala is different from the other natives, “but only to the degree she’s absorbed our culture. She’s really typical of her own race in every other way. And I find the Eskimos a wonderful people.”
This love of the Eskimos is more than a little syrupy, not only to the reader but also to Grace’s single white patient, a crusty reporter who crashes his plane near the hospital. He tells off the whole gang, shouting that he’s sick of hearing them “saying how wonderful it is that you’ve come up here and dedicated your lives to the poor Eskimos! … As I see it you’re all failures. Covering your failure by running away from civilization and pretending to be heroes.” To Grace, he adds, “You’re in the Arctic because you think it would please dear old Dad who was a missionary. Your neurosis is you’re trying to live your father’s life rather than discover one of your own. … What really makes me rage is your mealy-mouthed way of pretending it’s because you love the Eskimos.” It’s an excellent point.
The question of whether the white people are a help to the Eskimos is raised repeatedly through the book. Grace “felt that civilization had come as a mixed blessing to them and it was up to those who cared to try and balance the scale in the Eskimo’s favor. To date it didn’t look too hopeful.” For starters, they brought the scourge of alcohol. The trading post owner “carefully guarded against large amounts of liquor getting into native hands,” because of course the poor devils just have no self-control; if great white doctor Mark could forswear the stuff, how hard can it be?
Dr. Mark believes that “another bad thing we white, and so-called civilized people, have brought to your country” is greed, “the white man’s curse.” He and Grace have a conversation in which they decide that “it brings people closer together when they have to struggle against nature. That’s why these Eskimos are so unselfish. … We had the same generosity in America during the frontier days. It still exists to a degree in small towns and villages. But we’ve lost it completely in our cities … So even civilization has its failings.” I’m frankly puzzled by their idea that frontier America was all sweetness and light; from what I have read, it was pretty rough and ragged—was the gold rush really known for its unselfish behavior?
So it’s not surprising that Dr. Mark sometimes gets discouraged: “I wonder if we’re getting anywhere after all. Maybe we should abandon these people to their own devices.” But Grace reminds him, “Civilization always brings drawbacks with its benefits.” That’s about as heavy as the discussion gets, but at least it raises the point that technology, modern education, and fancy hospitals aren’t the answer to every problem.
They’re certainly not the answer to disease. Tuberculosis is a particular scourge in the Arctic, and the barbaric treatments the natives get include thoracoplasty, which means “all of the upper ribs were removed over the region of the afflicted lung. This caused a partial collapse of the underlying lung and so permitted prolonged rest.” (In Ski Resort Nurse, they just poked the patient in the lung with a scalpel under local anesthesia, collapsing the lung in a far less invasive procedure.) Then there’s the phrenic nerve crush, in which a small incision is made in the neck above the collar bone, and the phrenic nerve supplying the diaphragm is grasped and crushed, paralyzing the diaphragm on one side. “And as a result the paralyzed diaphragm would rise up in the chest and cause a limitation of the lung’s expansion. Such a limitation took the place of a thoracoplasty in giving the lung a prolonged rest and it had the advantage of not being so drastic for the patient.” I’m going to have to do some research to see what the evidence-based medicine has to say as to which is the superior of these treatments. The sad thing is that some TB patients at the Kovik Island Hospital were receiving streptomycin, which actually worked.
As far as the story goes, the descriptions of life in the Arctic are interesting: The houses are built on piles of rock, because if the foundation rested on the frozen ground, the earth would melt and sink, throwing the house into crazy contortions. The supply ship comes to the settlement in the spring, after the harbor has cleared of ice, and the “balmy” summers bring temperatures as high as 50º, while the winter storms drop to -50º. Sometimes the references are a bit gratuitous, such as the time Grace recalls, “The afternoon I took my first dogsled trip and we passed that immense polar bear on the ice I knew I wasn’t in Boston!”
The writing carries you easily along; it’s more the numerous controversial issues that bring you up short now and then. While it’s easy to see the racism, you can’t avoid the fact that the white folks mean well, and sometimes they even recognize their narrow point of view, such as when we are told that though Konala’s romance with the white doctor fell apart, “it was hardly fair to blame this failure in love on her racial background; it could have happened to any young nurse.” (They still think of her race first, but at least they try to knock it to the background.) And when Konala worries about whether she should wed Bert even though they are different races, Grace gives her some very sound advice: “If you marry Bert do it with the feeling that you’re bringing as much to him as he is to you.” Now if only they weren’t so parsimonious with commas!