Sunday, July 24, 2011

Private Duty for Nurse Peggy

By Madeleine Sault, ©1965
Cover illustration by Mort Engel

The dark old house was haunted by the memory of Mrs. Reinley’s lovely granddaughter—and when Peg Merritt went there as the old lady’s private nurse, she could almost feel the dead girl’s presence … But Peg’s real problems came from two handsome doctors—rivals for Mrs. Reinley’s money, and for Peg herself!


“She would be smart, ladylike, controlled. She would ignore him. ‘Spoiled brat!’ she found herself shouting at the top of her lungs.”

“They also tried to touch her. A number moved in completely, often pretending to stumble, attempting to press their whole bodies against hers. Many tried to put their big, coarse hands on her hips and thighs. One or two reached openly for her breasts. Peggy, with some experience in such matters, fended them off well enough, stamping on toes (and wishing nurses wore spike heels), and digging her elbows into ribs, stomachs, or perhaps the point of a protruding Adam’s apple. Just once, she had to treat drastically a particularly persistent body-contact expert, lifting her knee sharply between his legs. … This sort of thing seemed to be a regular and inevitable part of ‘public health work,’ so far as she could tell.”

“You actually saw DeBakey perform an endarterectomy?”
“Yes, he did it as a demonstration in our operating theatre at William Trent General. Of course, I don’t pretend to understand it.”

Peggy Merritt has come home to Ross Park, Colorado, after a stint in a Chicago hospital, to nurse aging millionaire Mrs. Reinley, the mother of her best friend from high school. Peggy had fallen in love with Charles Whittaker when she was young—but he married Sandra Reinley, so Peggy had moved to Chicago for the past four years to escape the heartache. Then Sandra died of multiple sclerosis and Mrs. Reinley had a stroke, so Peggy is back again.

Charles, now a doctor, is caring for Mrs. Reinley, so the two are thrown together again. Peggy also bumps into Henry Reinley, Mrs. Reinley’s son and now himself a doctor as well. The two clash constantly—he calls her “Piggy,” and she calls him “arrogant, juvenile, erratic, obnoxious, demanding, undependable, thoughtless.” Quick, call the preacher! On her first date with Charles, Hank shows up at the country club where Charles is about to kiss Peggy, dragging Charles’ fiancée Nadia with him—a woman whose existence Charles had failed to mention to Peg. Hank then grabs Peggy and drives her out to the family ranch, which he is in the process of converting to a hospital for the indigent. There, she helps him deliver a baby for a Mexican migrant worker. When he’s working, Hank is transformed, soft and gentle, confident, “a pair of gloved hands, skillful and firm.” When the baby has been born, Hank tells Peggy that Charles has a scheme to steal the ranch from Hank and turn it into a hospital for the wealthy, “and he’ll marry you to do it, if he has to.”

Indeed, the next day Charles is furious that Peggy has been up all night working with Hank on “the baby of some scrawny little muchacha who might have God knows what wrong with her!” His concern, of course, is that poor sick Mrs. Reinley was alone all night—and also that Hank is turning the ranch kitchen into an operating room, and starting a nursing school out there, and a clinic for beet-pickers. Charles’ hospital, he tells Peggy, would be “the very latest in hospital design … And the best kind of patients, too. Nice people—who can pay well for their care.”

But Hank is not through with Peggy yet. He gets her a job as a public health nurse for a week, taking her into the poorest part of town and vaccinating every one of the several thousand occupants for a week—that is, until a flood strikes, and then she’s busy helping the victims, until she’s on the brink of a breakdown from complete exhaustion. Home again from this “vacation,” a picnic Peggy is attending is struck by food poisoning and everyone turns green and vomits, and it’s Hank who turns up to help her triage the ill. When a poor little girl with a “gross and unsanitary housewife” for a mother gets sick with botulism from eating her mother’s pickles, Hank saves the girl’s life. His nurses speak of him with awe and reverence, and even if he’s impatient and demanding of Peggy, her opinion of him begins to turn.

Charles, meanwhile, tells Peggy that his engagement to Nadia is just to get her a green card, and really he’s in love with Peggy, because “you speak my language, know my thoughts, answer my needs, and tempt my appetites.” And, oh, yeah, he adds, as he drops her off after their date, “You have to help me stop Hank, before he ruins everything. You’re the only one who can. … We’ll tackle that young barbarian together, Peggy dear. And teach him some manners.” Even if she thinks that’s “a curious way to end a romantic episode,” she’s still swooning over Charles: “He was so big and strong and dominant. … Despite a lifetime of self-reliance and a well-developed taste for doing as she pleased, at heart she was a woman who wanted a man to sustain her, guide her, maybe even rule her.” She rants to Mrs. Reinley about Hank, parroting Charles’ complaints that it’s “unbusinesslike” that Hank is spending his own money to build better housing for the migrant workers. “I don’t suppose he went into medicine as a business,” says the shrewd old lady.

Charles proposes to Peggy and she accepts him, and shortly after that, Mrs. Reinley is abruptly felled by a major stroke. As she lies dying, Hank tells Peggy that his mother is leaving Peggy a third share in the ranch—so it will be her decision as to what happens to it, as Hank and Charles each get a third as well—and he assumes that Peggy will side with Charles now that they are engaged. But Peggy is coming to realize that Charles isn’t quite the hero she thought he was. She is saved from making any difficult decisions, however, when she bizarrely decides to nap in the closet off Mrs. Reinley’s main hall and overhears a telling conversation between Nadia and Charles.

This book has some interesting aspects to it, particularly its devotion to public health. But despite its idealistic speeches about how holy and important this work is, it does depict public health—and its recipients—as dirty, disgusting, demanding, and unrewarding. The poor are worthy human beings too, we are told, but we are shown a beastly population without intelligence, gratitude, manners, or soap; only the Mexicans come across as civilized and honorable. The plot is easily foretold, and we watch Charles manipulate Peggy like a puppet, wishing she wouldn’t have to wait until her nose is almost literally rubbed in Charles’ deceit before she grows a spine. Apart from these flaws, however, it’s a decent enough read, and I liked Hank’s character enough to forgive the author for making Peggy such a dolt.

1 comment:

  1. But Peggy is coming to realize that Charles isn’t quite the hero she thought he was.
    I don’t suppose he went into medicine as a business,” says the shrewd old lady.