Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Nurse in Yucatan

By Adeline McElfresh, ©1970

It seemed an answer to a prayer when Katy Jameson was offered a job as a nurse to ailing young Connie Christopher. The Christophers were going to the Yucatan, where James Christopher hoped to undearth a precious lost Mayan scroll. Katy's father, before his strange, tragic death, had hunted the same treasure, and Katy longed to revisit the exciting, exotic land. Awaiting her, however, was a maze of mystery and danger. Who was the disturbingly handsome, oddly secretive Hank Forrest? Was it wise to be attracted to the brilliant, dedicated young Dr. Jose Santez? Local legends told of an ancient Mayan curse. Could the pretty young nurse escape it as she searched for her path to love and happiness?


I hadn’t read but three pages of this novel before I had to turn back to the beginning to start over again. Was I reveling in the sophisticated literary style? Was I trying to unravel the deep hidden meaning in its passages? No, I was counting the number of times Katy Jameson, who is touring Chichén Itzá alone, breaks the patient confidentiality laws when she encounters Hank Forrest there, also travelling solo. (My count was seven, but maybe you can find a couple more.) To be fair, I should acknowledge that the laws didn’t exist in 1970, but it does seem to be a significant lapse of judgment to reveal that the Christophers, an archeologist couple, have hired you to care for six-year-old Connie, who has a heart condition, while they are working at a dig in Yucatán.

When she mentions Hank to the Christophers, however, Jim Christopher darkens, and he warns her to stay away from Hank: “Forrest is a cunning and a dangerous man.” Bewildered, Katy takes to roaming the streets, where she runs into Hank, who kisses her a couple of times, the cad, and warns her to be careful when she’s off in the jungle. There are jaguars out there!

Katy is the daughter of an archeologist, and her father had been working in Yucatán also, but died in a plane crash there when Katy was six. He was looking for the lost scrolls of the Temple of Itzamná, which contain the history of the Mayans. Here’s another coincidence—Mr. Christopher is also looking for the same scrolls! And he takes his family and newly hired nurse to live in the very same hacienda where Katy and her parents lived 18 years ago! In a few more pages, Katy figures out that the Christophers put that ad in the paper for a child’s nurse with an interest in Mayan civilizations expressly to lure her, Katy Jameson, to Yucatán in the hope that they can trick her into revealing where the scrolls are. Instead of immediately bolting the premises, she goes back to the house, plays with Connie for a while, and chats with the Christophers about the Mayans. Has this woman no sense at all?

That evening, off wandering again in the jungle, Katy runs into Hank, who tells her that her father had indeed found the scrolls, sent her and her mother back to the U.S., and died trying to smuggle the scrolls out of Mexico. Katy can’t believe it, and so begins to distrust Hank. Nonetheless, when she finds out that Hank has been shot by Jim, she treats his wound. But she’s not confident in her skills: “Everything she remembered from her Medical and Surgical Nursing textbook shouted danger!” She gets him to the village clinic, but the doctor is out. Hank’s rising temperature obliges her to attempt to remove the bullet from his shoulder: “I’m sorry, Hank,” she tells him, “but this is going to hurt like the dickens.” (She has penicillin and sulfadiazine on hand, but apparently they’ve run out of pain killers.)

After bringing Hank back from the edge of death, Katy goes home to the hacienda to find that Jim has gone off the deep end. He has an idea about what Katy’s father did with the scrolls, and when he finally gets rough and forces her at gunpoint to help him obtain them, it’s hard not to feel that Katy should have seen this coming. This climactic scene rolls by too quickly, and when she is saved and “Katy’s world was suddenly as bright as a Yucatán dawn,” I was hard pressed to care. After it’s over, we learn that Hank let something slip while he was delirious with fever, but since we were not allowed to witness his indiscretion, it felt like a cheap trick.

It’s not badly written, and the book has a good deal of respect for the local people and Mayan civilization. You do kind of wonder what’s up with these scrolls, and about all the J names: Jorge, José, Jim, Jonathan Jameson. But the best thing about this book may well be the title.

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