Sunday, November 27, 2011

County Nurse

By Peggy Dern
(pseud. Erolie Pearl (Gaddis) Dern), ©1961
Cover illustration by Robert Maguire

County nurse Beth Mason was young, beautiful, dedicated to her work and deeply in love. Doctor Cary Latham was bored by his patients and resentful that he must spend three years in a backwoods community. Yet they had to work together and the surprising climax to the conflict between them leads to a love story of truly dramatic impact.


“If you’re planning to welcome the man, serve his supper and show him to his room, you look fine. If you’re planning to marry him—”

“ ‘Is there anything I can do for you before I go?’ she asked, every inch the docile, well-trained nurse addressing one of those lordly beings, a doctor.”

“Unless you want to smell like a walking advertisement for my business, you don’t shake hands with me, Doctor. Boiling, cleaning and deviling crabs and shucking shrimp is not exactly a fragrant business.”

“You do agree with me then that the role nature meant for women is their finest career?”

“From what I hear you are a neat blend of Dr. Pasteur and Gregory Peck.”

“If all the really nutty people were shut up, there wouldn’t be enough left to keep things going on the outside.”

“Making the rounds, looking after the sick and ailing is your very life. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever have the nerve to ask you to give it up.”

“The education that can be found in books is only half, and the smallest, least important half.”

“Is this a private fight? Or can anyone get into it?”

This book has one of the worst back-cover blurbs ever. The truth of the story is that Dr. Cary Latham is the typical big-city snob from Atlanta, forced to work in the back country of Georgia to repay the state aid he received for his medical education. En route to his new home in Kerryville, he gets lost on the back-country roads and almost runs over a beautiful 19-year-old girl. “I was waiting for you,” she gasps breathlessly, “to beg you to take me away— ” But then a man falls out of the woods after her. John Nordman is Meredith Warrener’s uncle, and under Uncle John’s watchful eyes, she assures Cary she’s perfectly fine, takes John’s arm, and the two disappear back into the swamp. Naturally, Cary is deeply intrigued.

He arrives at the house where he will be living, the home of county nurse Beth Clay and her mother Amy, the only house in town with plumbing and electricity. They tell Cary that no one has actually seen Meredith in ten years, that her uncle keeps her isolated in the decaying family mansion—it used to encompass 10,000 acres and own 5,000 slaves—with only him and the aged black housekeeper for company. When Cary chides John about this later, John answers that he is “unwilling that she should have friends among the dolts and clods of Kerryville […] Do you wonder I want to protect her innocence, her loveliness?” Sounds a bit perverse to me.

Cary grudgingly settles in, and Beth immediately starts a grudge of her own, recognizing him as the city snob he admittedly is. Cary, to his credit, takes a more direct approach, calling Beth on her prejudice against him, pointing out that he has never said “any of the other unpleasant names you are hanging on them and trying to credit to me.” After this Beth defrosts a bit. She thinks of him with “a warmth in her heart,” and he evaluates her as “the perfect doctor’s wife”—nevermind that she is affianced to the town lawyer, Ben Cooper, who we see very little of through most of the book.

Soon after his arrival in town, Cary is approached by the sheriff, who asks him if he’s heard anything about a monster running loose in the woods or treated anyone for “peculiar wounds—maybe scratches, claw marks or teeth marks.” Then a mossy old half-blind squatter near the Warrener house reports that he sees Meredith cavorting in the woods with the monster. Shortly afterward, Meredith falls from her bedroom window in the middle of the night and sprains her ankle. Cary, called to the case, learns from her that she has a friend in the swamp who will starve if she doesn’t bring him food, which she is now unable to do. Cary, having spent less than an hour of his life with Meredith, mulls over the question of whether he is in love with her. “Oh, for Pete’s sake! When he did [think of marriage], it would not be some lovely, fragile, haunted patient!” Uh, maybe it will. And so, against his better judgment, he agrees to leave a sack of groceries in the woods for her, but that darned squatter sees him, takes the supplies, and rats Cary out to the sheriff. And thanks for the food, Doc.

The sheriff has decided the swamp monster must be an escaped convict: “We’ve got to catch him and lock him up before he does anybody any harm!” He tells Cary that he and his posse are going to set out another pile of groceries and lie in wait: “ ‘And when he comes out to get it—’ He closed a big, ham-like fist as though he were closing it around the throat of the missing man.” So guess how this ends up? Cary shows up at the stakeout to put a stop to it, but the sheriff threatens him with jail, so Cary keeps quiet and just watches as a half-naked old man staggers to the food and is shot dead. As the men, “their guns cocked and ready,” stand around watching, Meredith flings herself on the old man’s body and screams, “You filthy murderers!”

Meredith now justifiably hysterical, Cary tries to take her home, but they are stopped. “She’s going to be questioned, Doc, and you might as well shut up,” snaps the good-hearted sheriff. Meredith tells them that the old man was a Seminole Indian, exiled from his people because in his youth he killed someone. Now feeble and toothless, he was starving until Meredith helped him. “And now you’ve murdered him—you filthy beasts!” she screams and faints dead away. The sheriff insists “we’ve done nothing but ask her a few questions we had a right to ask,” and says he plans to ask her more—but Cary finally grows a spine and snaps, “While she’s unconscious?” and takes her home. I’m amazed at how the injustice of this entire incident seems to pass over every other character’s head except the neurotic Meredith. The swamp man’s only possible crime is trespassing, but the squatter does this openly—and is clearly much more of a nuisance than the “monster”—and he’s walking around free. Maybe it helps if you’re white.

While she’s out cold, Cary convinces Uncle John that Meredith needs to get out of the house more, and John, shaken by Meredith’s association with the flea-bitten old Indian, finally agrees. When she’s awake, Cary tells her he wants her to date around—but he’ll be waiting for her, because he loves her. She thinks that over and agrees—then asks him to kiss her. “I always thought it would be like that!” she says, “Like walking on clouds and bumping your head against the stars.” For her part, Beth suddenly realizes that she’s been “the world’s worst silly ever, even for a moment, to think she wanted Cary, when Ben had been there all the time, a very part of her.” Ick and double ick.

Overall, this is a good book. The characters are well-drawn and the setup of the story—the mysterious woman in the decaying house, the monster in the woods—is intriguing and certainly unique. Beth’s mother is a fantastic character, smart and wry, always saying things like, “Have a cup of coffee, darling, and then you can explode.” But the situation with the old man in the woods is completely unsatisfying, as it feels like the sheriff has gotten away with a serious crime and ought to be prosecuted, or at least fired, but if his actions are hinted at being unjustified, he gets away with them. I was also disappointed that Cary so quickly falls for a clearly nutty teenager (remember, she is just 19) while Beth, out of the blue, goes gaga for a man who is a cipher throughout the book. If it had ended differently, this could have been a top-notch book. But even with its flaws, it’s a very pleasant read.

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