Monday, August 16, 2010

Jungle Nurse

By Sharon Heath
(pseud. Norah Mary Bradley), ©1965

Patsy Leeson knew that being a nurse meant more than just the hospital routine. And so with a sense of dedication still unfulfilled she volunteered to join the medical station in Africa that was doing so much good for many in real need. When she arrived, she was overwhelmed by the dangers of the jungle—rampant disease, wild animals, primitive peoples. But she found the greatest peril of all was her growing attachment to the young doctor in charge, and the battle she had to wage for his love.


If you are interested in foreign places, how people tick, medicine, or the evolution of relationships, there is not much point in reading this book. Jungle Nurse is at its best in the first two chapters, before Patsy leaves New York for Kalumonga, a fictional African country, to work at a tiny missionary clinic. In New York she haggles with her aunt and longtime family acquaintance Dana, who proposes marriage to her, about why she wants to go to Africa, and the characters actually have some shape to them. But once Patsy arrives in Africa, everyone is made of cardboard, and we are told more about them than we are shown. Even she herself loses her starch; the gumption she shows in leaving the U.S. melts away and she takes on the character of a shrinking violet who is mostly aghast at what she has gotten herself into: “She could not quite suppress a gasp of horror” at the prospect of crossing a river, and she stared in “horrified fascination” at the news that the hospital treats crocodile bites.

The love interest, Neil, is the clinic’s only doctor, and he is, of course, engaged. But apart from his good looks, there is not much to recommend him. He doesn’t spend much time with Patsy, and when he does, he is no-nonsense or even rude, reprimanding her for tending to his own dog when it is attacked and nearly blinded by a cobra, and leaving the patients with two native workers. He snaps at her, “a severity in his tone,” for asking about a coworker, giving her “an obvious rebuff” that “hurt unbearably.” He becomes angry when she suggests that several members of the hospital staff travel to a nearby village to offer medical help: “He flung his spade aside and came over to the fence, his gray eyes alight with anger. ‘You seem to be forgetting that, so far as the hospital staff is concerned, I’m in charge here! I’ve told you to put the idea out of your head, don’t you understand that?’”

Events occur for no apparent furthering of the plot. Patsy intercepts a knife meant for Neil, but this has no effect whatsoever on their relationship, and there is not even a conversation between them regarding the incident. Not two paragraphs after Patsy is settled into her room after the incident, she has recovered from the stabbing and is back at work.

Apart from the ubiquitous hot, dusty drives down endless bumpy tracks in a jeep, Africa is invisible, and Patsy might as well be working in Brooklyn for all the reader sees of it. Only encounters with the natives, who are incompetent in a way that is meant to be amusing, remind us where we are. The native cook makes pancakes with yellow cake batter, which one diner says tastes like sponge cake. Even so, the hostess summons the cook from the kitchen to tell him, “Oh Mwasa, you’re hopeless! Take the horrible stuff away …”

The treatment of the local residents is unenlightened even, I would think, for 1965. A few natives work in the hospital, but “it doesn’t do to give them responsibility. They’re easily excited or scared and tend to lose their heads in an emergency. Also, their ways of reasoning often leave much to be desired! My boy, Lusamba, for instance … he’ll make a mess of simple things which any normal English child could cope with.” She is amazed that another nurse knows every patient’s name; “to her, they all looked alike.”

In the book’s final pages, when Neil tells Patsy that his love for his fiancée “had been driven out of my thoughts and my heart by someone else, someone who’s come to mean so much more than she could ever have done,” Patsy’s response is, “I can’t believe it!” Frankly, neither could I, and the ending, or the eight paragraphs that follow this exchange, landed as flat as the rest of the book.

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