Saturday, October 16, 2010

Leota Foreman, R.N.

By Peggy Gaddis
(pseud. Erolie Pearl (Gaddis) Dern), ©1957

“I wonder what happens south of Washington Square?” That’s what vacation-bound Leota Foreman, pretty New York nurse, wanted to find out … Little did she guess how much intrigue and excitement were waiting for her in Poinsettia City, Florida. First there was Dr. Gray MacKenzie, handsome and capable … but so unfriendly. And red-haired, debonair Mitch Adcock, the local lawyer … But where did Mallory Mabry, beautiful and much-married, fit into the picture? Leota finally learned the secret behind Dr. MacKenzie’s bitterness—and with it, the answer to her own heart’s questions.


“We nurses never seem to have much time for falling in love!”

With this book, the fourth VNRN of hers I have read, Peggy Gaddis’s stock continues to rise. Leota Foreman (not to be confused with previous Peggy Gaddis heroines Leona of Nurse in the Shadows or Luana from A Nurse for Apple Valley) is living in New York, three years out of nursing school, when the book opens. She’s battling her way home through an icy snowstorm, and when she gets there, she tells her roommate she’s going to Florida—“and was almost as startled to hear herself as Meg was.” So she hops a train for some small town where the living is easy and the sun is warm.

She gets off at Poinsettia City, a town of 4,000 people somewhere in the center of the state. There are no cabs, so she bums a ride at the train station from Mitch Adcock, a total stranger who turns out to be an attorney, and accepts a dinner date with him. Boy, times have changed. Checking into the town’s hotel, she—what else?—collides with Dr. Gray MacKenzie. “Doctor Sour-Puss” has “a built-in grouch, a mad on the world, himself included, and his ‘bedside manner’ is strictly nonexistent. He doesn’t want people to like him; he doesn’t want friends; he’s strictly for himself alone!” according to the desk clerk, 18-year-old Taffy, who is inclined to say things like, “Well, don’t flip your toupee, pal.” Taffy is obviously pining for Mitch—“If you’re getting ready to send Mitch into a swoon, you needn’t shoot the works,” she tells Leota before her date with him—but even having experienced the good doctor’s bad humor, Leota nonetheless tells Taffy to relax: “Dr. MacKenzie is much more my type.”

That night, he is indeed pounding on her door—but only to enlist her medical aid. The hotel chef, an Italian-speaking cordon bleu, has stabbed an assistant for the fourth time because the Hollandaise curdled. Leota helps the doctor reassemble the assistant, and the doctor talks the sheriff out of hauling Caesar off to jail. Based on her expertise in this case, Leota is recommended to care for aging Jemima Mabry, a millionaire who is dying of incurable cancer despite Dr. MacKenzie’s best efforts.

Dr. MacKenzie continues to play hot and cold with Leota. One minute he is sneering at her and dismissing her with his eyes. He asks her to lunch and then, when she asks why a fine doctor such as himself lives in Poinsettia City, says it’s none of her business, and “the tone made the words hurt like a fist plunged into her face.” But Leota takes the high road: “A nurse wouldn’t dare dislike a doctor; it’s forbidden in her training rules,” she says to him. She seems to like him only because he is a competent doctor, replete with “fine surgeon’s fingers,” which she tells him repeatedly. He soon reveals he is falling in love with her—though you would never guess it from his behavior—but can’t have anything to do with her because he was executing some unnamed experiment on his mentor, a brilliant oncologist, at that doctor’s insistence, and the doctor died. “I could never ask any woman to share a life that I have no moral right to enjoy,” he says.

Then Mallory Mabry, who after her divorce “requested and obtained the use of my maiden name”—and how nice of the courts to grant it, too—peels into town in a white Jaguar and snugly fitted Capri pants. She is “a saber-toothed tiger, man-eating variety,” and Miss Jemmy’s closest living relative. Poinsettia City is clearly not her scene, but she’s run out of money and is in town to collect more from her aunt. Before Mallory has a chance to drop by the hacienda, however, Miss Jemmy dies peacefully in her sleep. Her will gives her house and fortune to Dr. MacKenzie to start a hospital in town, but naturally that’s not going to stand unchallenged. Dr. MacKenzie’s medical competence and Miss Jemmy’s mental fitness are held up to withering scrutiny in court, and the suspense—will they emerge sparkling and whole?—is unbearable.

This is the first VNRN I have read in which the heroine is the one who puts on the moves. “Leota stepped close to him and put her arms about him and held him.” “Deliberately she leaned toward him, framed his startled face between her palms, and set her mouth on his in a long, lingering kiss.” A few pages later, young Taffy proposes to Mitch (never mind that he’s a dozen years older than her): She tells him she loves him, and he answers, “What am I going to do with you?” “You could marry me,” she replies. It also ends on a strange note: Miss Jemmy’s other nurse, a confirmed spinster, trips over a spooning couple at Miss Jemmy’s house, and there dawns a “sudden bleakness in Miss Emma’s eyes,” and in the book’s final sentence she “walks silently from the room.”

The book does a nice job of painting a scene of a particular place and time, and the lesser female characters, Taffy and Mallory, are spicy and enjoyable. If the romantic relationships in the book are not very satisfying, at least they don’t take up too much of the reader’s time. And while the ending is not hard to predict, other unique aspects of the book make up for that. It really puts you in this particular time and place, and on the whole this is a very pleasant book and worth reading.

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