Sunday, February 3, 2013

Woman Doctor

By Alice Lent Covert,©1952
Cover illustration by Lou Marchetti

Maggie Waynescott was a woman born for love. Petite and beautiful, no man could look at her without wanting to take her in his arms. Now she had fallen deeply in love with newspaperman Mike Hubbard. Here, finally, was the man she wanted close to her for the rest of her life. But Maggie Waynescott was also Dr. Waynescott, a woman in a very special man’s world … a world she knew Mike would never share. Somehow she had to choose—her man or her career.


“Let’s get ourselves an honest-to-goodness Hawaiian tan, not the common variety we get at Rockover beach. Something with class.”

“A physician, of all people, should know how to cope with something as simple and fundamental as a biological urge.”

“He wielded his scalpel like a kingly scepter.”

“ ‘I have a new playsuit that simply begs to be worn—’
‘Brief?’ he asked hopefully, and she chuckled.
‘Positively curt!’ ”

“Women were supposed to have been emancipated way back when. They make a big thing of getting fitted out for a career in medicine or law or industry—then they creep meekly away to some fusty old desk job and the men go right on doing all the worth-while things and grabbing off all the glory. Look at my racket. I wanted to be a foreign correspondent, so what happened? I sat at a desk and told the dames how to make ducky sandwiches for their Tuesday bridge clubs.”

“He’s been sulking all evening, and uttering cryptic comments. I’m not sure whether he’s feeling downtrodden or simply observing a period of suffering for those who are.”

“If we were poor people, we’d be considered frightfully bad-mannered—with the possible exception of Cleatus. The rest of us are just eccentric. It’s the same thing as bad manners, you know; it just depends on which bracket you can afford.”

“Unless you’ve some other completely asinine remark you feel you’ve just got to make, will you kindly shut up and kiss me?”

Dr. Maggie Waynescott is, at 28, in the midst of a midlife crisis. First of all, as a woman doctor at a prestigious clinic, the only patients she gets are the neurotic wealthy women with no health problems that aren’t psychosomatic. Then her boyfriend, reporter Mike Hubbard, wants to marry her, but to Maggie, “Marriage to him would be the death blow to her career.” She thinks, “If I were insane enough to let Mike talk me into tossing everything else overboard just to be his wife and the mother of his children, I’d come to hate myself, and him!” To be fair, though, Mike has never suggested that she give up her work. “He was willing to admit it might be possible for a woman to successfully combine the medical calling with a healthy, enduring marriage. He was willing and anxious to try to help Maggie combine them.” So the pressure to quit working comes entirely from Maggie and her own ideas of what would make Mike happy: “He wanted quiet evenings with his pipe and slippers and a serene knowledge that if the telephone rang it would be someone with an invitation to bridge, or a wrong number—not a distracted summons calling the little woman out on an all-night confinement case!” So it’s going to be difficult persuading her to walk down the aisle.

Then her uncle, Dr. John King—who raised her from a young age, like all other heroines, when her parents died—writes that he has suffered a heart attack, and his practice in the mining town in New Mexico where she grew up is hers if she wants it. So she packs up and heads for the hills. Interestingly, we learn in the first chapter that what Mike, a former war correspondent, really wants to do is edit a country weekly and write a book, and it seems like Sky River might be an ideal spot to do both. Yet when Mike suggests he go with her, she tells him, “There’d be nothing for you in Sky River.” And she has another reason as well: He shouldn’t do it, she says, because “a man wants the woman he loves to be willing to follow him,” and if he follows her, he’ll be unhappy. Mike answers, “I can see where saving a man’s life rates higher in the human scheme than furnishing him something to read over his breakfast coffee. Maybe the obvious solution would be for the man to follow his woman, for a change. I might free-lance, take a crack at fiction—” But then he shakes his head. “It doesn’t jell, does it?” And Maggie agrees that it does not, and that’s that. Better they break up than try to make their relationship work, regardless of how it might not fit the norm of the day. Given the fact that Maggie has made a career in what was then considered “a man’s world,” you’d think she would be more open to bucking tradition, but apparently not.

En route to Sky River, she travels in a bus with just one other passenger, Chris Rutledge, the general manager of the Fleming mine company, which is the big operation in the area. “He tried to flirt with Maggie, and was cheerfully unabashed when she ignored him. His overtures failing to draw her into conversation, he talked lazily to no one in particular. Today, he informed the sun-flooded, pine-scented world, the scenery inside the stage was even more beautiful than the outside. He meant to write a letter to the company officials, commending them and suggesting that such pleasant interior decorations be made a permanent feature of the service.” Before long, naturally, the two are best friends, going on long hikes up the local mountains and working to restore an old house she’s bought.

The problem is that Chris is the property of Diane Fleming, the daughter of the prominent Fleming family. Diane is a cold, beautiful vixen, and also a state senator. She has no qualms about informing Maggie early on that Chris is hers and she should back off. So Maggie keeps her relationship with Chris platonic, telling him that although “the idea of your kissing me isn’t obnoxious to me,” she has another boyfriend and he has another girlfriend. But they’re still hanging out, and Diane has her revenge when she asks the senate to table a bill that would have funded a hospital in Sky River, which has long been a dream of Maggie’s Uncle John. Chris brings Maggie a copy of the newspaper article announcing this development, and Diane shows up drunk not much later for a cheap, fabulous brawl in which Chris tells Diane that he loves Maggie, not her, and then takes Diane home. As Maggie is recovering on the front porch, who should turn up but Mike—just as the phone rings, and it’s Diane, saying that she has shot Chris. Which sort of puts an end to any chance Diane might have had of winning Chris back.

Mike lingers around town for weeks afterward, getting involved with the local newspaper, writing free-lance and working on a book (sound familiar?). He’s also helping young Bill Fleming, who always had a hankering to write, get the floundering local newspaper back on its feet. Meanwhile, Chris is partially paralyzed from the waist down. He has to undergo rigorous physical therapy, and Maggie, feeling guilty about her part in his shooting, feels she has to be there for every minute of it, bullying and coaxing and teasing him into just one more leg-lift. Diane, thanks to Chris’ insistence that it was an accident, isn’t facing charges, but she’s drinking so much that it looks like she’s attempting suicide by vodka and tonic. Mike, seeing the amount of time Maggie spends with Chris and how her efforts with him are sucking the life out of her, asks her to marry him, but she believes that if she marries Mike, Chris will lose his motivation to walk. So Mike leaves town, and her. Two months pass, and Chris finally walks across a room—and asks Maggie to marry him, and she accepts. But then Diane is arrested for drunk driving and put in detox. Chris goes down on his crutches to visit her, and comes home looking thoughtful.

You know exactly how things are going to play out from here. Not that that’s always a bad thing. This book is a wonderfully written, amusing, thoughtful, and smart, sprinkled with phrases like, “I freely accord you the selfsame privilege of refusal.” It combines stock characters—the shallow bitch on heels, the rangy cowboy, the sage elderly town doc—with real feeling and motivation that gives the book both a sense of fun and the satisfaction that comes with a well-told story that feels true. The book isn’t without flaws: Early on we spend some time inside Bill Fleming’s head, which made me think that he was to be Maggie’s new boyfriend, and at book’s end it’s still not clear why this detour was necessary. Mike’s reasons (slim as they appear) for not going to Sky River with Maggie at the beginning of the story are completely ignored when he does move there in the end, undoing the central angst of the entire book. And the psychology of Maggie’s refusal to marry Mike is somewhat explained, but she never internalizes these lessons to the extent that her acceptance of him makes much sense. But overall, this is an engaging and enjoyable book that even moved me to a few tears in places. It’s a nurse novel (about a doctor) that wants to be a real story, and succeeds in a way that few do.

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