Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Nurse Was Juliet

By Peggy Gaddis, ©1965 

Julie hated what he stood for. Change to her beloved little mountain town. Change in the way she and her doctor mother conducted their small clinic for the people of the hills. Change in her fiancé, till now the most dependable thing in Nurse Juliet’s life. And most frightening of all—change in her heart. How could she hate a man—hate everything he died—and still dream of him all the time? 


“A home and a husband and children are a woman’s trinity.” 

“This is for life; not for a romantic novel.” 

When you know an author was turning out several books a month, it’s hard not to feel a little guilty for expecting more from a book than formula. But darn it, when I see the same setup again and again, I am annoyed—especially when it’s just minor aspects of the story that wouldn’t be all that tough to switch up. For example, in this Peggy Gaddis throwaway, we meet Miss Sarah, who lives in the rough-hewn cabin set at the top of a long winding path far from the nearest road—a de rigueur setting for at least one character in four of the five of her books I’ve read to date. 

In this one, our eponymous nurse hails from a small dirt-poor town in the Georgia mountains—another big stretch for Ms. Gaddis. Steve Hayden, a newspaper reporter from Atlanta, comes to town to cover a murder trial that had a change of venue to this backwater location, and from the moment she claps eyes on him, Juliet Cochran is nasty and mean beyond all reason. You see, she is furious that the name of her hometown will be forever sullied, as people will think the murder happened here rather than just the trial, and she blames Steve for this. 

Oddly, however, she is also opposed to her fiancé’s hopes of improving the place. “He’s going to do everything he can to change Haleyville, first by getting a good road to the county seat and then, no doubt, by getting a hospital over here,” she snarls. She doesn’t mind the poverty of the residents, their hardscrabble lives, their miserable and crowded living conditions, that the “girls marry before they get out of their teens, some of them before they get into their teens,” because it’s what she’s known all her life. Besides, her parents are doctors, so she doesn’t have to live that way, which makes it all just charming and quaint. 

The aforementioned Miss Sarah has a “crumpled old face” and graying hair, and she calls herself “a cross-grained old woman,” and “a battered old creature.” Juliet visits the housebound recluse every week to give her “a life-giving injection that would keep her going for another week.” (That must be some shot!) But Steve digs up a shocking secret about her: It seems that she married a very wealthy man from New York when she was 18 and gave birth to a son a year later, only to run away back to her shack shortly afterward. Steve finds the 26-year-old Gerard and brings him to meet his mother, and all is right with the world. And now for the real shock—Miss Sarah is actually just 45 years old! Apparently the hardscrabble mountain life really takes a toll on a person. 

The millionaire Gerard then sets out to upgrade Haleyville. In a matter of months, new houses are springing up all over town, the roads get paved, banks open, industries move in, and the general store starts carrying Capri pants, halters, and Bermuda shorts. If only we had this guy on President Obama’s economics team, we’d have the recession turned around in no time. Juliet begins to see that jobs are a good thing after all, although it may be the latest fashion trends that really melt her cold, cold heart. All that remains is for her to dump her fiancé and for Steve to swing by and claim his prize, and we can toss this book over our shoulders.

This book has a couple of odd moments. One is its interest in spanking, though it would not be the only VNRN to have this unhealthy obsession. “What an unpleasant creature you are! Dr. Laura, I’m afraid you didn’t spank her often enough when she was growing up,” Juliet’s fiancé says of her. A few chapters later, Steve chimes in, “For two cents I’d turn you across my knee and wallop the daylights out of you.” Juliet reacts by catching her breath with wide eyes, as if this is an actual possibility. “And don’t tempt me by saying I wouldn’t dare!” he continues. “I can’t think of anything at the moment I’d rather do! It’s way past time when somebody should have done it!” The whole idea is wrong in so many ways—from the apparent acceptability of violence against women, to treating women like children, to the hint of kinkiness to the act—that it could be an entire term paper in someone’s women’s studies class.

Then there’s the fact that Juliet and her mother have hired Aunt Jemima to do their cooking. “Mattie, vast and ebony-hued and immaculate in her dark print dress and white apron,” is constantly urging the women to eat in her honey-chile vernacular. “Miss Laura, you ain’t had a mouthful of vittles!” she scolds Juliet’s mother. “Mattie was at the stove, smiling a white-toothed welcome that split her ebony face into a happy smile … fists on her ample hips.” Like Mammy in Gone with the Wind, she’s a sympathetic and caring character, but one that nonetheless makes me wince.

This book is not Peggy Gaddis’s finest, nor her worst. She does pursue her habit of picking up certain words or phrases and beating them to death—I think she referred to “vertical” farms on at least three occasions—once was good, but enough is enough. She also hints at things that are never answered: There’s the suggestion that something happened to Juliet when she was in nursing school—“Here was a girl who had been badly hurt sometime, undoubtedly during the years she had spent in Atlanta,” Steve thinks—though we are never told what happened, or even if this is in fact the case. Juliet herself is not a terribly sympathetic character, as she is always sniping at someone, and she is called selfish by several characters, including her mother. But for its flaws, it’s pleasant enough, especially if you haven’t already read other Peggy Gaddis books.

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