Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A Nurse for Apple Valley

By Peggy Gaddis
(pseud. Erolie Pearl (Gaddis) Dern), ©1964


“That’s a pretty wonderful thing to happen to a girl, Debbie,” Luana told her gently: “not ever to be lonely or have to make her own decisions.”

As much as I had looked forward to my next Jane Converse title after reading the delightful Surf Safari Nurse, I dreaded my next Peggy Gaddis title after reading the infuriating Dr. Merry’s Husband. But as Jane’s
Nurse on Trial was not as good, nor is Peggy’s A Nurse for Apple Valley quite as bad. While still retaining some of Peggy’s more irritating writing techniques, such as involving us in an entirely different storyline halfway through the book, this story did not make me scream in frustration at the end. Not exactly high praise, but that’s the best I can do with this one.

Luana Ramsdell starts out as a bit of a snot, when on the opening page she is horrified and indignant when her friend, Denise, asks her to take over her nursing assignment for six weeks when Denise is called off to the Caribbean to attend her ailing grandmother. Luana agrees to go to this hill town about 100 miles from Atlanta—it could be right next door to Dr. Merry’s River Gap—but Denise makes Luana promise to keep her mitts off Taylor Culbertson. She thinks the valley’s “leading citizen” is just the bee’s knees, and though he hasn’t proposed quite yet, she plans to make him tumble for her when she gets back.

So Luana sets to work for Dr. Pete Anderson, who is hoping to retire, except there is no doctor in their right mind who would agree to work in such a “ridiculous little hollow in the hills,” as Luana calls it. Yet somehow, she begins to feel “completely at home in Apple Valley.” She soon meets Tay, and though they have little interaction throughout the book, whenever they do she seems to lose control of her bodily functions: “For no sensible reason at all she felt her face go pink with color.” “She caught a look in his eyes that was warm and admiring and that for some completely absurd reason made her heart leap a little.” So every 20 pages or so we witness warm stares and blushing just to remind us that there is some attraction between the two, though you’d never guess it from their dialogue or the amount of time they spend together.

Enter Couple B of the story, the one that steals the limelight until Couple A can be brought together in the book’s last three pages. Debbie Lanford hates all medical professionals because her mother received blood during an operation, became infected with hepatitis from the transfusion, and died of cirrhosis. So when she meets Luana, it doesn’t go well. “I’d hoped when Denise left that we’d be spared having another of your kind up here,” she says. Debbie also runs into Derry Blanding, who is in Apple Valley on vacation but is cagey about his past. He is instantly smitten with Debbie and tries to buy her an engagement ring, but when a busload of kids gets into an accident and he instantly rolls up his sleeves and starts scrubbing, things look grim for the couple’s future. Derry, you’ll be stunned to learn, is actually Bland Deering, an esteemed physician scoping out Apple Valley as a possible site to spend his career. (And yes, his name is really Bland.)

Debbie refuses to see him after his occupation comes to light, but he hunts her down, grabs her by the arm, and tells her, “You’re going to marry me, and that’s that! And you’re going to get over this nonsense about hating doctors and people who are connected in any way with the medical profession. Is that clear?” That’s all it takes: “Her face was wreathed with a radiant smile that lit twin candles in her eyes, and she cried out softly, “Oh, Derry … I’m so tired of deciding things for myself.” This devolves into a nauseating antifeminist conversation in which she agrees to let him “boss me around” because “you’re so much smarter than I am!” He replies, “Now that … is what I call a perfect basis for a perfect marriage—a docile wife and an adoring husband.” A couple of pages later, Debbie—who has previously worn no makeup, a flannel shirt, jeans, brown boots, and a shabby leather jacket—has apparently gone shopping: She appears “smartly dressed in a well-cut linen sheath of a shade that matched her eyes, a soft white sweater swung carelessly across her shoulders.” It must be love.

I have to pause here at the “wherever my man goes, whatever my man wants to do, that’s what I want too!” business. I acknowledge that this book is now more than 45 years old, but did this sort of attitude ever play well? Weren’t nurses, as subjects of romance novels, supposed to appeal to the general public because nursing was one of the few professions open to women, allowing them independence? Luana’s character is admired for her work, and in her perfunctory rapprochement with Tay, no mention is made of her giving up her job. Even Dr. Merry, drippy as she is, is completely dedicated to her career. Is Debbie the dishrag a means of playing it safe with readers who might be nervous about Luana’s self-sufficiency? Were there ever any such readers, or did the author just think there might be? It was, after all, just a year after Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique blew the lid off the idea that women enjoyed being treated like children all their lives.

In another culturally curious passage, Dr. Pete has just delivered a couple’s fifth child. The father, upon finding out that the infant was his first son, “beamed all over his long-jawed face and said proudly, ‘Well, now, Granny, another hoe-hand!’ ” Dr. Pete tells Luana, “He’ll be kind and gentle with Betsy now, for a while, anyway.” When Luana expresses her surprise, he says, “Don’t you ever run into brutal husbands back in Brady Memorial?” Luana answers, “Only a few husbands are brutal and beat their wives.” And Dr. Anderson responds by telling her to run along and get some rest, because tomorrow may be a busy day. Apparently beating your wife, unfortunate though it might be, didn’t bring on anything more than a momentarily furrowed brow in 1964, or at least in this book, as it certainly didn’t warrant any action on the part of the beaten woman’s physician. Another reminder that the “good old days” maybe weren’t so good, after all.

But back to the book: The writing itself isn’t painful. There are the colorful hill country characters, like Aunt Judy, who is, naturally, a witch: “You folks come in and set a spell and let me get you some cider,” she tells Luana when Dr. Pete first introduces them. “It’s been setting quite a spell, and it’s getting right lively.” But it can be sloppy: two consecutive paragraphs start with the same sentence, “Dr. Anderson shot her a swift glance,” not so original that it bears repeating. And all the pink cheeks, as quoted above, are not exactly stretching your writing chops. Then there’s the Peggy Gaddis patented diversionary plot tactic: Bland/Derry and Denise fill Chapters 5 to 13, leaving us just 15 pages to resolve Luana and Tay, in an ending that is bewildering in its rapidity, not to mention completely unbelievable, all that blushing aside. So while it is possible to get through this book, it’s not completely free from irritation.

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