Friday, January 3, 2014

Hurricane Nurse

By Peggy Gaddis ©1961
Cover illustration by Harry Bennett
Betsy Stockwell had been taught in nurse’s training to maintain an impersonal attitude toward her patient. Only then could a nurse do her job efficiently. But when the patient was your own father, though, how could you be anything but deeply, personally involved? For Betsy’s father, the beloved Dr. Cal, had had a heart attack and after his treatment in the hospital it would be up to Betsy to see that he made a full recovery. Postponing her plans to marry young Doctor Paul Norbert, Betsy accompanies her father to Florida. They are met by a handsome young doctor who practices medicine with a cool competence that both amazes and infuriates Betsy. What is a man like Mark Everett doing in this Florida wilderness? As Betsy begins to learn the answer, she finds that her interest is more than a professional one …
“Funny thing, how all you fellows beat your brains out and wear yourselves to a nub, trying to heal the human race of ills it’s not a bit anxious to lose. So why? The whole world’s about to go boom any day, so why bother to keep people strong and healthy?”
“A really top-notch nurse is half the battle in any operation.”
In the first chapter, Nurse Betsy Stockwell is desperately in love with Dr. Paul Norbert, and they are planning to marry in a few months and move to northern Georgia, where Paul will become a small-town GP in order to pay off a school loan. But then Betsy’s father, surgeon Cal Stockwell, drops of a heart attack after finishing a complex kidney transplant, and has to go somewhere dull for six months to recover, and Betsy insists on going with him. Her separation from Paul is all devotion and sorrow: “I love you very much and couldn’t be untrue to you, ever, not even if I took lessons and tried for years and years,” Paul swears; for her part, Betsy vows, “It’s like that with me, forever and ever and until the day after!”
You’ll never guess what happens next. Upon arrival at Blue Heron Cay, Betsy meets Dr. Mark Everett, and the pair takes an instant and deep dislike to each other. This is, of course, a standard VNRN device, but to her credit, Ms. Gaddis meets this head-on. “Love and hate are such terribly strong emotions and only a hair’s breadth separates them,” explains Donna Pruitt, a young hussy who brazenly chases Mark, “and quite often when you think you hate somebody to pieces, you wake up some morning and realize you don’t hate him at all. In fact, you’re nuts about him!” (Betsy responds that it will be a cold day in hell when this happens, and Donna says what we’re all thinking—“Famous last words!”)
Betsy attempts to take Donna under her wing and educate the poor misinformed lass about the proper way to win a man: “You can’t win a man by pursuing him that way. Keep him guessing!” she says. Betsy belabors this philosophy through several chapters and repeated sermons: “I think you’re scaring the poor man half to death, going after him as shamelessly as you are. I have a hunch that he’s a man who likes to do the pursuing.” Donna remains blithely unmoved, and it is only Betsy who squirms as Donna links her arm through Mark’s.
Then the advertised hurricane strikes, and Betsy and Mark work tirelessly to operate on a four-year-old girl. In their fatigue afterward, Mark holds Betsy’s hand and calls her darling, but surely that’s the lateness of the hour talking! No, Mark insists, they’re in love and must marry, he says the following morning on the beach after the storm has blown itself out. Betsy trots out the specter of Paul, who is no longer described in the adulatory terms we’ve grown accustomed to. Now it’s all obligation: “Paul was counting on her. Depending on her,” she thinks. “She had given Paul her word, and she would live up to it as selflessly and surely as she had lived up to the Florence Nightingale oath.” Again, Ms. Gaddis seizes this metaphoric bull by the horns. “None of which is worth a damn, if you’re not in love with him,” Mark declares. “No man wants a wife who is secretly in love with another man. To go on with your marriage to him would be a wicked, outrageous thing.” But before he has time to carry the point with another smooch, who pulls up to the beach in a battered boat but Donna, and when Mark helps the petrified seadog ashore, Betsy is inanely convinced that Mark will marry Donna.
Suddenly Dr. Cal is well enough to leave the island, and Betsy bravely marches back to her job at the hospital, “as though she was walking toward some dreary future.” But she needn’t worry—before too long she catches Paul in the diet kitchen with another woman! She declares herself relieved to be free of Paul, but is still convinced that Mark is going to marry Donna, based on absolutely no evidence apart from Donna’s dogged ambition. Then Donna shows up in Atlanta, shopping for her bridal trousseau: She’s engaged, but—get this—to another man!  Now, however, all Betsy’s lectures to Donna about “chasing” men come back to haunt her, and she tells her father that it would be “too humiliating” to tell Mark that she wants to marry him, after all. Furthermore, “her sense of duty” to a patient she is specialing, a wealthy teenager recovering from a drunk-driving accident, now makes it impossible to visit Mark; why she can’t telephone or write a letter is not explained.
But one evening she discovers that the old watchman has allowed her patient’s friends to sneak into the hospital. Totally out of character, Betsy explodes, telling Larry not just that she will have the watchman fired though he is unlikely to ever find another job again, given his advanced age and ignominious behavior, but also that the young father and husband that Larry smashed into was burned to death in the accident, a little fact that Larry’s parents had meant to keep from him. Larry becomes hysterical, and Betsy, with “icy coolness,” “without remorse that she had told him the truth,” shoots him up with a sedative that knocks him out for the rest of her night shift. “She was still blazingly angry at those spoiled brats who broke laws for thrills,” we are told, as if this somehow justifies her brutality. The next morning Larry’s mother lets Betsy go, but for reasons unrelated to her shocking unprofessionalism. This frees Betsy to fly to Blue Heron Cay, where she finds Mark roaming the beach and confesses, “I’m a shameless woman! I’m pursuing you relentlessly!” She tells him that “as soon as I could get myself fired by the patient I was tending, I came straight down here,” as if her scene with Larry was a deliberate, manipulative act meant to free her from her own responsibilities. Now, she decides, “from that moment on she would do whatever was his will.” I wonder what she will do when she decides that obligation is no longer convenient.
I was quite pleased with this book up until Betsy’s sudden transformation into a brutal enforcer of punishment to rule-breakers, even more troublesome when juxtaposed with her own “joyous” flouting of a social “rule” that she herself has repeatedly beaten Donna with. Betsy undergoes no reflection on her past attitudes that indicates any growth of character or explains such hypocrisy, and the scene of her unapologetically abusing Larry is actually shocking, offering nothing to the plot but a puzzling glimpse of cruelty in our heroine.
Until this point, however, this is a crackerjack book. We get sparkling characters like the quintessential sassy girlfriend, and Mark is a self-assured hero whose initial dislike of Betsy stems from her own snobbery of the island, not from the author’s wish to make him an ass one minute and devilishly attractive the next. The writing offers a self-awareness that is unusual in a VNRN and a welcome change, and we regularly meet enjoyable passages such as, “The boat moved like an elderly lady after a day’s hard shopping, determined to get home but not seeing the necessity of hurrying too much lest she wreck her dignity.” I will even dare to say that I found Mark and Betsy’s crucial scenes to be exciting, which is an extreme rarity in this genre. So though it has a serious flaw in the end, I can still heartily endorse this book as one of Ms. Gaddis’ best.

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