Saturday, May 14, 2011

Big City Nurse

By Peggy Gaddis
(pseud. Erolie Pearl (Gaddis) Dern), ©1963
Cover illustration by Robert Maguire

“What’s the matter?” he asked. “Is Anne making passes at your young man?”“I don’t know what you mean,” Nurse Linette Stokes stammered. “Besides, he’s not my young man.”
“But you like him, don’t you?” she was accused.
“Certainly I like him. He’s—he’s a fine young doctor,” she flushed. But her heart was heavy and her thoughts kept returning to the picture of Anne’s lovely, laughing face lifted to Dr. Powell’s admiring eyes.


“Nursing is the most rewarding profession any woman can hope to know.”

“Linette had stood when Dr. Powell came into the office, her attitude the one taught in training school as befitting a nurse in the presence of that lordly being, the doctor in charge of the case.”

“And there are people who rave about Paris in the spring! That’s only because they haven’t seen Atlanta in the spring!”

“I imagine you are a sensation with Dr. Sturdivant’s feminine patients—you probably have to beat them off with a stethoscope or something.”

“ ‘Too bad you are too old to be spanked,’ he drawled. ‘You are very sassy.’
“ ‘Who said I was too old to be spanked?’ she drawled provocatively. ‘It all depends, of course, on who’s to do the spanking.’ ”

“Anne would flirt with a wooden Indian if he wore pants.”

“Peter’s epithet was unprintable, and Linette, who had served a part of her training in a ward for the mentally disturbed, winced slightly at the word.”

“I’ve often heard that there is no more becoming costume for a woman than the uniform of a nurse.”

“You must know, surely, how often you’d like to hurl something, preferably heavy and with ragged corners, at a whining, complaining, demanding patient.”

“If you mention a nice tonic, I’ll do something unpleasant.”

“ ‘Go put some clothes on!’ ordered Peter sharply. ‘Running around like a half-plucked chicken! It’s a scandal to the jay-birds!’ ”

I’ve said previously that I have a love/hate relationship with Peggy Gaddis. She’s always, at minimum, a bit irritating, but sometimes she can rise above it and put together a good book. This is not one of those times.

Linette Stokes has taken a private duty case caring for a grumpy rich bastard, Peter Callaway, age 67, “which is not old nowadays, unless a man has abused and driven his body beyond human endurance as Callaway has.” He’s “partially paralyzed,” suggesting that he has had a stroke, but for him this is a death sentence, and he has shut himself away in his room. His doctor tells him that “he has to want to get well,” but this is the era of the patronizing physician, and on the very next page he tells the (black) servants, Mandy and Ezra, that “for the rest of his life, he will be very much as he is now.”

The two servants are Aunt Jemima/Uncle Ben types; Ezra, “a very ancient Negro butler in an old-fashioned, neatly pressed livery opened the door for them and bowed them in with a manner that matched his livery.” The cook, Mandy, is “an enormous Negro woman in a spotless lavender uniform beneath a voluminous white apron, her head topped by a snowy head-cloth in lieu of a cap.” Ezra and Mandy are never anything but dignified, even though they are simple and mangle their grammar, such as when Dr. Powell tells Ezra that Peter will never walk again: “Linette saw the shine of tears in his murky old eyes. ‘He going to hate that, Doctor. He always been so busy and rushing around and bossing things. I sure hate to see him helpless like he is now.’ ” Linette, probably to prove what an open-minded gal she is, insists on calling Mandy “Amanda,” but to me this comes across as another shade of condescension. Why does Linette get to decide what Mandy is called? It’s the charm of the Old South, where you show how kind you are to the darkies who are forced to labor in your menial, low-paying jobs because that’s all they can get.

Linette is working under the supervision of Dr. Nelson Powell. She has the hots for him, natch, and the romance is how he is slowly but surely reeled in; not much suspense there, but that’s not why we read these books. The story is how Linette slowly but surely warms up the old grouch. She’s got some help, as Peter’s deceased brother’s wife and her two children, evil connivers all, blackmail their way into the east wing of the mansion. Janet Callaway is all about the money, and she proves she is trash when she is rude to the servants, calling Ezra, “you black ape!” Jon, who we are told looks 20 but turns out to be about 16, is cut from the same cheap silk. He makes a crude pass at Linette, who soundly tells him off by hissing, “Take your hands off me, you twerp!”

Daughter Anne, 18, is more of a cipher. She is a shameless flirt, for about five minutes making Linette fear for Dr. Powell’s morals. She connives a convertible from an old guy named, and I am not kidding, Hump. In her first tête-à-tête with Linette, she mentions that she won’t mind if Peter takes a turn for the worse. “It would mean an awful lot to us to have that money,” she says, then seizes Linette’s arm in a fury when Linette suggests they may not. But three pages later, when Peter has fallen and can’t get up, Anne runs into his strictly off-limits bedroom to help him and bursts into tears when he tells her to buzz off. Then she’s insulted when Dr. Powell tells her it was kind of her to help him: “What kind of vile and filthy crawling worm do you take me for? What did you expect me to do?” Well, I took her for the kind of worm who would coax cars out of graying would-be Lotharios and scheme to get a sick man’s money. But maybe the question was meant to be rhetorical.

Anne’s transformation is complete when she meets a trucker and decides she wants to marry him on the basis of the 20 minutes they spend together. Steve is a hard-working salt-of-the-earth type who brings a man’s touch to the mansion: He comes in and starts telling everyone what to do. When Jon is shot while trying to rob a gas station with his wealthy ne’er-do-well chums, Steve is on hand to save the day, telling Jon to grow up and providing a strong arm for Janet to lean on. Dr. Powell does his part, too; when Janet faints dead away at Jon’s hospital bed, he tells Linette to take Janet home and “give her something to relax her and make her sleep.” The scandalous episode rouses Peter; he unexpectedly decides he’s going to hire the best lawyer in town to get the spoiled delinquent off the hook. Then Linette makes a revolutionary suggestion that the partially paralyzed man use a wheelchair, and before you know it, they’re a happy united family.

This is an odd story that seems to suggest that all anyone—including men from 16 to 67—needs is a strong man to depend on, preferably one from a working-class background. It’s a little too predictable to be very satisfying, and several characters undergo wild swings in their personalities over the course of a few pages. I didn’t find the characters either appealing or dastardly enough to be really interested in them; even Janet, in the role of the ruthless decaying femme fatale, one that I usually eat right up, came across as a flat shell. It’s not the worst book ever, but you can certainly do better.

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