Cover illustration by Mort Engel
A career in a big-city hospital … marriage to a brilliant, popular surgeon—or a life of service to the Indians and lumbermen of the rugged timber country…and the thrill of working beside a virile, dedicated young doctor? As Nurse Rheva Rayburn hesitates between two ways of life, drama and mystery explode—and in a night of crisis and terror, she makes her fateful choice.
“One of the first things a good nurse learned was not to take the drug inspired comments of her male patients too seriously.”
“It was common knowledge that an Indian was incapable of holding his liquor with any kind of grace.”
“Half aware of Dave’s appraising eyes following her movements, she thought again that the administration of a pain relieving agent, or an anesthetic certainly had the power to release the wolf in a male patient.”
“Pregnancy is a woman’s natural role.”
“Hell, Doc, I’ll bet you could take it. And I can stand anything a damn Indian can.”
“Once we’re married, you won’t have to worry over patients, or anything but making me happy.”
Being optimistic in nature, I always start a new nurse novel with a sense of hope, an expectation of a pleasant hour or two, a few laughs, enjoyable characters, and good writing. And I took up this book, with its Mort Engel cover, with just such anticipation. “The road twined inland,” it began, but right there – with that one word, twined, a feeling of dismay settled over me, an inclination that only worsened until the back cover approached and the realization that it would soon come to an end dawned.
Rheva grew up with her lumberjack father, Tim, in rough logging country in the Pacific Northwest, but left all that behind to move to San Francisco to become a nurse. In that fabulous city she was scooped up by Dr. Spencer Sandeen, and the handsome, wealthy surgeon is about to head off to a glorious internship at a fancy Chicago hospital with her as his bride. Her heart doesn’t seem to be in it, though, judging by the constant snarky observations she makes about her so-called beloved. For starters, “He would be shocked, to the tips of his immaculately polished kidskin shoes, if he could see her now, crouching in the dense woods beside the big, rugged ranger.” And then, “Spence had never exhibited that certain, thrilled exuberance for his work—or anything else.” “It was the sort of thing Spence would say. And do, Rheva thought. The easy way out, with little danger—to Dr. Spencer Sandeen’s flawless medical record.” “Spence had made it clear to her that he wanted a wife willing to devote herself exclusively to him, body and soul.” Good luck with that, buddy.
She’s come home to visit her dad for two weeks and help him bag an elk (he scored one of the few permits distributed during the elk season). While she’s there, she meets Dr. John O’Garra, a “strange, dark halfbreed doctor” of Irish and Hoopa Indian ancestry. If you find the term half breed a bit unsettling, better pour a tall glass of Pepto Bismol right now, because the word is used at least half a dozen more times, along with a liberal helping of “inscrutable” and “mysterious” – we are treated to all your favorite Native American stereotypes, from the beautiful, wild young woman Sasoo to drunk Indians getting into bar fights.
Rheva really has quite the hots for the doctor, and her lust is quite startling for a VNRN: “Dr. O’Garra’s long thigh pressed against her own, as he leaned with the swerving ambulance. The hard, sinewy pressure of his muscles burned through the thin fabric of her uniform. A sudden surging tingled along her veins in response to his ruggedly appealing masculinity. She hadn’t known a woman could be … She pushed the thought out of her mind, telling herself that the feeling Dr. O’Garra aroused in her was the mysterious ‘libido’ defined by her nursing textbooks.” Call it what you will, sister, but I call it more appropriate for a sleaze novel.
Beyond her own unabashed hankering for Dr. O’Garra’s lithe, muscular form and “exotic Indian darkness,” it seems we’re also supposed to sport a hard-on for Rheva herself, as we are regularly offered glimpses of her uniform “rustling cleanly against the length of her shapely thighs,” her “soft, full mouth,” or in the shower, where “the chilling water sliced against her creamy, pink tinted body.” She’s scrubbing to assist in a surgery in which her father, gored by his elk, may die, but before we scrub up for a very serious operation, we watch her “slip a wrinkled scrubgown over panties and bra, and bind her generous mop of soft hair away from her pert face.” Speaking of lingerie, we learn more about that, too:“She slipped out of her old hunting pants revealing startlingly brief and pretty underwear, mere wisps of filmy, delicately tinted nylon. Most of the nurses Rheva knew were extravagant in their choice of undergarments. A nurse’s uniforms were attractive, coming in a variety of attractive styles. But it somehow enhanced the femininity of the white garments to know that she was daintily attired beneath them.” Whoa, Nellie!
In a shockingly original plot twist, Dr. O’Garra offers Rheva a job at the woefully understaffed hospital, and she can’t decide whether to stay with the half breed hunk or go back to her asshole fiancé who will force her to give up the career she loves and host parties for his shallow friends. Hmmm – what to do, what to do? Then there’s the “night of crisis and terror” alluded to on the back cover blurb (see above), when she and Dr. O’Garra deliver a baby. We’ve already met the woman’s husband, Dave, when he checked into the hospital after rolling his rig. In Rheva’s every encounter with Dave, he makes salacious remarks and looks her over with x-ray vision. She tries to shame him by mentioning his enormously pregnant wife Peggy, but it doesn’t work: “ ‘She’s not much to look at right now,’ he added, his young, handsome face naïve. His gaze traveled the length of her trim figure, shapely in the well fitted, princess style uniform.” The best thing about his wife’s pregnancy, it seems, is that it will soon be over. Indeed, the first words out of Peggy’s mouth after she delivers her son allude to her relief at getting her figure back: “ ‘It feels … good to be thin again,’ Peggy managed. ‘Dave … will be glad.’ ”
So with the baby – and Peggy and Dave’s sex life – saved, all that’s left is for Rheva to choose Dr. O’Garra. Spence shows up to be jilted to his face, but not to worry: There’s that hot Indian woman, Sasoo, for him to claim instead. All the better that she’s actually an accomplished painter.“Sasoo was beautiful. And with a talent like that she could make a fortune in San Francisco. Spence had a penchant for primitive art, as did most of his friends.” Apparently no matter how many art classes you’ve taken – and she’s been studying for years, financed by Dr. O’Garra – if you paint people with brown faces, it’s classified as primitive.
If I were a bigger person, I would not feel compelled at this point to whine about the book’s numerous allusions to Rheva’s pericardiac anatomy: “Her heart twisted behind her sternum.” “Rheva felt a dull ache starting behind her sternum.” “Rheva felt her heart quicken behind her sternum.” “Her heart had begun a sudden fluttering behind her sternum.” “Fear tugged behind her sternum.” “A knife-sharp pang sliced somewhere behind Rheva’s sternum.” “The wild beating behind her mediastinum had grown to thundering proportions.” (Apart from everything else, it would have helped if the author had checked an anatomy book to find out what the mediastinum actually is.) But this book has not encouraged my finer qualities, no doubt because it has none of its own.