There were many reasons for Ellen’s decision to give up her position at Chicago’s City Hospital and join Father Clousseau at his African mission—not the least of which was a chance to forget her recently broken engagement to Dr. Richard Creighton. The unspoiled beauty of the Masai Plains and the simplicity of its people allowed the young, auburn-haired nurse to sort out her emotions. This was an opportunity to contribute something of value to mankind, as well as a chance to find herself. But that was before she met rugged, self-assured Craig Adams. Suddenly her emotions were once again in turmoil. Could she trust her strange new feelings? Could she be in love with a man she hardly knew?
“We brought the Africans into our dining quarters shortly after their independence. It made a good impression on them, and they have behaved very well here. They are learning.”
“The woman in Africa has not had equal status thrust upon her. She walks several discreet paces behind her man when they are in public together. She cooks his food, builds his fires, tends all his needs. She wants it that way.”
Ellen Matthews has given up her man, Dr. Ralph Creighton, who is a 33-year-old chief psychiatrist and out to make her both his long-term patient and his stay-at-home bride. Because a breakup is so much more effective when you’re a continent away, she has packed herself off to Kenya to join a mission hospital in the country. The mission is run by Father Clousseau, with occasional drop-ins by Dr. Peter Smith-Talbot for three days of marathon surgery. The good doctor is married, however, so it’s up to Craig Adams, local game hunter, to provide the love interest for our auburn-haired heroine. At first sight, Ellen is less than impressed with Craig, because he is somewhat scornful of her ignorance of how medicine is practiced in the bush, without all the modern conveniences. But “he was, she had to admit, very handsome and very masculine.” So we can see the writing on the wall, even if he admits to some crudeness: “I don’t get much practice in how to act around white women,” he explains.
Life at the mission hospital involves a lot of tropical diseases, and occasionally witch doctors invade the hospital, kidnap the patients and murder them. This makes attracting patients somewhat difficult, needless to say. To help fill the time, Ellen goes out on various expeditions into the bush with Craig, who captures animals to ship to zoos all over the world. This he considers “conservation” work, especially when he is lucky enough to nab an endangered species. Ellen isn’t entirely won over by this argument, but still comes along to admire Craig’s skill and perseverance while running down baby giraffe.
Most of the book revolves around Ellen’s conflicted feelings for Craig. She does treat a few patients now and then, but her work is mostly backdrop and few real patient stories are given to us. The big adventure at the end involves Ellen going with Craig and Father Clousseau to treat a village overcome with sleeping sickness and helping to move the population to a less-susceptible location. As Ellen is on the brink of admitting her love for Craig, she gets a letter from Dr. Richard, who urges her to come back to him, as he is a shell of his former self. Curiously, both she and Craig frame this as if she would be going back to marry Richard, “whether she really wanted to or not,” she thinks, because she felt obligated to help him. It’s a bit of a failure as a crisis of her relationship with Craig, because she’d have to be a complete moron to do something like that. Even if these idiotic impulses are routinely considered by VNRN heroines, it doesn’t make them any more compelling. Then Craig has a close encounter with a leopard in the jungle, and it turns out that Ellen, who despises hunting, has actually done a fair amount of it back home in the Midwest, and is a crack shot. Now that Craig needs her help too, her choice becomes a lot more clear, especially after he tells her that he’s taken a job as game warden and is hanging up his nets and dart gun for good.
Of all the nurse novels set in Africa, this one is easily the best in terms of armchair travel: Its descriptions of the countryside are well-drawn and vivid, allowing you to really believe while you are immersed in its pages that you are not in any American landscape. Ellen demonstrates more independence in her actions than she does in her interior monologue, and unfortunately the author does not demonstrate the chops to make the dichotomy work, much less acknowledge its existence. But if the story is facile and the conflicts simplistic at best and baffling at worst, it’s still worth reading just for the scenery.