Sunday, July 1, 2012

Walk out of Darkness

By Arlene Karson, ©1963
Cover illustration by Harry Schaare

Nurse Ellen James was torn by indecision. Chet Matthews was demanding she set a date for their wedding—but Ellen wasn’t sure that she loved him. She knew Chet had a brilliant future in the publicity field. In fact, he had just asked her to go along on a three-day walkathon to promote untamed Padre Island to tourists. Ellen decided to go along. That’s when she met Dr. Tom Phillips, a strange, lonely man, and became even more confused by her own emotions. There on a wild, desolate stretch of sand, both men were faced with a crisis of life or death. Ellen knew that the key to her future happiness depended on which man could meet the challenge—and win her heart.


“Wear the gold dress, all right? The special one, and I’ll bring my whistle.”

“No man wants his wife working unless it’s necessary. You’ve given over two years to humanity. Now give your time to me. This humanity needs you, honey, really needs you.”

“You have lovely legs, Ellen. Too bad you have to hide them in those white stockings and monstrous shoes.”

Ellen James is a 22-year-old surgical nurse who has been dating Chet Matthews, an up-and-coming publicity executive. (He is “about” 25, and I had to ask myself why the author wasn’t more certain about his age, given the fact that she herself was making it up.) Chet has been begging her for the last few months to marry him, but she just can’t bring herself to say yes. Part of her reluctance stems from her belief that he doesn’t love her all that much: “Sometimes she had the feeling that if she refused him permanently he would bear no lasting scars.” Then there’s his insistence that she would have to give up working if they married—and we all know how that’s going to work out for him. (I have to pause here and try to recall if a single nurse who has been unwilling to quit working before marriage ever did so happily afterward, and I can’t think of any.) But oddly, she seems to think that if she loved Chet enough, she would want to give up her career: “Did she really love him? If so, why did the thought of giving up her work at the hospital make her feel lonely and lost?”

One largely unaddressed issue is the fact that she seems to disapprove of his work and his lifestyle. “She had gone with him to cocktail parties, dinners and other social functions he must attend to keep in touch with the right people—men and women to whom he could go when he needed to raise money for another of his publicity schemes. She could never get enthused over them as Chet did.” So the thought of spending the rest of her life going to parties isn’t exactly thrilling her.

The problem about this common plot setup—the heroine engaged, or thinking of becoming engaged, to the wrong man—is that frequently the man in question is such a dolt that you can’t understand why she hasn’t dumped him long ago. Chet is indeed one of these, and Ellen spends no small amount of time ruminating over his flaws: “Chet had a habit of making snap judgments about people, and too often he was influenced solely by external factors. It disturbed her, because too often he was wrong. Chet flitted from one strong attachment to another, sometimes using people for what they could do for him rather than for their own personalities.” Then, on the very next page, she asks herself, “Why did little things about him disturb her so much?” I don’t know about you, but where I come from, if someone is manipulative and shallow, that is a major character flaw, not a “little thing.”

Chet’s latest job is director of publicity of Padre Island, off the Texas coast. He wants to turn what he calls “this God-forsaken island” into another Miami Beach, but Ellen prefers it in its almost completely wild, windswept state. (As it happens, the Padre Island National Seashore was established in 1962, the year before this book was published, so Ellen got her way in the end.) Curiously, she never discusses this with Chet, just sighs that the natural beauty she loves is being threatened. To promote development on the island, Chet comes up with the idea to stage a three-day “walkathon,” a competition in which the participants walk 100 miles along its beaches over three days, followed by television crews and a large raft of support vehicles. Such an enterprise will require medical staff, of course, and when he asks Ellen to help, she readily agrees.

The doctor for this dog-and-pony show is Tom Phillips (he’s “around” 32), a former surgeon with a tragic past who now works as a public health doctor. He used to be married, with two young children, but they were killed in an automobile accident—someone ran a red light—and he took to drinking, gradually sinking more and more, until the day he froze during an operation. He’s thrown down his scalpel and moved to Texas to get away from the memories, and now he’s just a shriveled shadow of his former self, though he did quit drinking over a year ago. It’s a little out of his reclusive and curmudgeonly character to agree to participate in this production, but to the book’s credit, he repeatedly asks himself what in the world he was thinking when he agreed to it. It seems he’s beginning to recover from his grief and seek solace in the company of other people again, even if he doesn’t realize it yet.

The main company he will be keeping is, of course, Ellen. Chet has promised to spend the race with her, but two big shot executives are coming along for the race, and he promptly dumps Ellen with Tom to make room for them in his jeep. She and Tom get off on the wrong foot when he deeply insults her by saying, “Beyond performing your duties, I expect nothing of you.” (Is this an implication that she might be thinking of entertaining him, wink, wink, after hours?) She is livid, and he is deeply embarrassed at what he said, so now he has to be nice to her, and they slowly become friends.

The bulk of the book follows the race itself: The contestants and their personal stories, the behind-the-scenes work of putting up and taking down tents, the management of the food and water supplies, the orchestration of the reporters and television crews. The crisis comes on the second day, when a brutal storm blows up and the caravan of supply trucks becomes mired in the sand and is largely unable to reach the competitors at the end of their 40-mile leg for the day, so they have little food or shelter. Chet, predictably, reacts to the crisis by driving off into the sand dunes, ostensibly to look for help, curling into a ball on the front seat, and taking a nap. Ellen notices his absence and goes after him, chews him out royally, and tells him how to take control of the situation (“loudly and efficiently”). This actually helps save the day and Chet’s career, though it puts an end to their relationship.

The other turning point in the book—the one we saw coming from the minute we got Dr. Tom’s back story—is when one of the contestants comes down with acute appendicitis and requires immediate surgery in the middle of the storm, when they barely have shelter, much less a full OR. So when Tom tells Ellen the whole truth about his past and why he can’t ever operate again, she has to whip him into shape as well, in what I found to be a great speech: “I can’t fight you,” she tells him. “I can’t fight an empty shell. I can’t shame you or call you names. But if you don’t operate on him—then I will!”(It actually gave me a shiver to see a VNRN heroine step up, strong and confident, in a way that few ever have.)

This book has more than the usual VNRN, in part due to the strong backbone of a plot provided by the race; something more than a curiosity about who the nurse was going to marry drives you to keep turning the pages. If parts of the story are predictable, well, I’m willing to overlook that if I care about the characters, and in Ellen I found a strong, intelligent (mostly, except where Chet was concerned) heroine. Tom is also sympathetic, but the growth in his character from hermit to husband was realistic in that it was not completely due to his meeting Ellen; it was already underway when they met. Then there’s a title that actually refers to the storyline with a double entendre, a rarity in VNRNs, when you’re lucky if the title has anything at all to do with the story line (see any of Florence Stonebraker’s novels). Give it a great cover illustration and top it off with a rather cute ending, and other nurse novels pale beside Walk out of Darkness.

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