Thursday, April 7, 2011

Lady Doctor

By Peggy Gaddis, ©1956

When David jilted Dr. Ruth Prescott, her every dream and hope died. Her only thought was to escape the busy hospital and the sophisticated city life she knew. But what help would she find from the bayou people who resented her—and from the man who wanted her so badly he wouldn’t take no for an answer?



“I hope you will look on me as a doctor and not as a pretty woman.”

“Doctors don’t weep, even on such nice broad shoulders.”

I have sort of a love/hate relationship with Peggy Gaddis. On one hand, her plots tend to be predictable (big city healthcare practitioner moves to the sticks, usually in the mountains of Georgia, and comes to love it) and her writing can be nauseatingly syrupy (“David’s home, she told herself warmly, was in her heart, and her home was anywhere in the world David wanted to be”). On the other hand, they frequently have lively characters and interesting situations, and are laugh-out-loud funny, whether intentional or not. So while I enter into them with an eyebrow askance, I am frequently won over, at least somewhat, by their end (the odious Dr. Merry’s Husband being a notable exception).

Lady Doctor is just such a book. Dr. Ruth Prescott, who is smitten with some guy named David, “since that first night when he had been brought into the hospital, critically injured in a taxicab smash-up.” But he’s been away in the jungle of South America for a year, and she’s been waiting for him … to come home and tell her he’s engaged to a missionary’s daughter. To ease her heartbreak, she does what any sensible professional would do: She chucks her job and moves to a bayou community near Tampa, where only jeeps and motorboats can penetrate the wild country.

There she finds a community divided into squatters (“good-for-nothin’ trash,” according to Maude, Ruth’s landlady) who subsist (quite well, actually) off the swamp, the more genteel Harbor people, and the po’ folk of the Flats. The Flats is a slum belonging to Walt Hubbard, the trading post owner, who overcharges for rent and underpays for wages, keeping the people there in perpetual poverty. Which apparently inclines them toward wife-beating and alcoholism, as Ruth discovers not long after her arrival when little Beatsie Holcombe tears into the doctor’s office screaming, “Pop’s about to kill Mom!” In a fairly graphic scene (for a VNRN) we burst into the filthy, cluttered hovel to find “a thin gaunt woman, face down; over her stood a big hulking brute of a man, a thick leather whip in his hand. The woman’s back was torn and bleeding, and even as Ruth paused, incredulous with horror, in the doorway, the man lifted the whip again to bring it down on that pitiful back.”

This sets Ruth off on a crusade (after she snatches the whip away from Bud and uses it on him a few times) to create a board of health to enforce the laws against slums and beating the womenfolk. On her side is town mayor Len Hudson, who proposes to her the day after he meets her. But the rest of the townspeople either stop showing up at her clinic or openly deride her plans: “Dr. Ed knowed the Harbor, Ruth. He respected people’s rights to live their own lives. And if you’re aiming to stay here, Ruth, I reckon maybe you’d better learn to do the same,” Maude sneers.

But then Ruth is kidnapped by one of Walt Hubbard’s compatriots, rowed out into the swamp, and left on a barge as the sun is going down. “She couldn’t remember who had said it; but she could hear a voice saying, ‘Ain’t nothin’ human could live in the swamp more’n a few hours, come night. Mosquitoes would eat him alive.’ ” Here I had to pause for a hearty laugh, even as Ruth “could not keep back the wild screams that bubbled from her throat” and soon passes out. But little Beatsie has overheard the dastardly plot and runs to Len. The good people of Copeland Harbour, belatedly seeing the error of their ways, and remembering how Ruth took care of Barney “time he stuck a rusty nail in his foot, and sat up with him for two nights to keep him from having lockjaw,” now turn out en masse to find Ruth, burn down the trading post and the Flats, and lynch Walt. It’s quite an ending, I have to say.

I admired how Ruth showed a lot of backbone in standing up for what she thought was the right thing to do, even when she knew it spelled her own doom. I liked how Ruth, delirious with fever after her night in the swamp, calls out for David—and it doesn’t mean at all that she is in love with the man; it’s just that “people in delirium say the darndest things.” And I was pleased with Ms. Gaddis’ occasional ability to see through the sexist situations she herself has set up, as when a friend of Ruth’s, in town on a visit, looks askance at how the townspeople refer to Ruth as “Miss Doc,” because “when we got us a woman doctor, and her so young and pretty and—well, sort of sweet, just saying Doc didn’t hardly seem respectful. So folks got to calling her Miss Doc.” In answer, Ruth’s friend drawls, “I suppose it didn’t occur to you just to call her Dr. Prescott.” In short, this book is sensible and, at the same time, silly, each where it should be—a perfect combination and making for a pretty good book.

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