Sunday, April 14, 2013

Nurse in the Tropics

By Peggy Dern 
(pseud. Erolie Pearl Gaddis Dern), ©1958
Cover illustration by Paul Anna Soik

To Martie Howell, a nurse accustomed to routine duty, the assignment to accompany Lisa Long back to her Haitian home and to stay with her during her convalescence from pneumonia seemed like a heaven-sent voyage to enchantment. Nor did the picturesque country, with its brilliant vegetation and its colorful natives, disappoint her. But she was also exposed to Haiti’s darker side—to its voodoo rites and its age-old superstitions. These were frightening when seen at a distance; when used to break up the romance of Lisa and a young doctor, and also to alter the course of the nurse’s life, they inspired hysteria and near-panic.


“I’m a nasty little cat. Why don’t you spank the livin’ daylights out of me?”

“Killing a love like ours calls for a lot of brutality. But then I don’t suppose murder is ever easy.”

“I don’t know who designed the first nursing uniforms, but whoever it was certainly did a fine job! They make a pretty girl beautiful and even a homely girl pretty! Though I don’t believe, now that I think about it, I ever saw a homely nurse!”

“I have to get back to the bananas.”

“I never dreamed there’d be a time when I could laugh and joke with a doctor. I’ve always had a great awe of them.”

“A nurse’s uniform is the most becoming costume any woman can wear.”

“I’m not afraid of evil spirits or any other kind of spirits—except the kind that come out of a bottle and are consumed inwardly.”

“They want to throw a party for us, Martie, to welcome us, but it won’t be a voodoo affair, so don’t be frightened.”

I can’t help but pick up a book about a nurse in a third-world location with dismay, anticipating the patronizing attitudes I will shortly encounter. Peggy Gaddis has already proved herself a benevolent racist elsewhere, in works including Big City Nurse and The Nurse Was Juliet, so it was just a matter of time before we’d hear about the natives who address the white folk “with childlike affection,” who are “capering” “anxious children afraid of punishment.” “They—well, they’re like children!” Martie exclaims when she travels to a village in the mountains. At the same time, we are told several times that “it’s almost impossible for anyone to understand who has not spent many years here and mingled with the natives.” Curiously, VNRN heroines don’t seem to find similar situations in Paris or Monaco.

We also get to look down on voodoo with all the condescension of those who follow the One True Path of Christianity. An old “witch doctor” who visits a patient in the hospital is forcefully ejected and threatened with jail “because he’s breaking the laws against voodoo and all its weird and nasty practices.” Martie herself finds herself “only a few inches removed from terror of the old man,” an emaciated barefoot waif with “wicked” eyes. It is odd that the white characters, who regard voodoo as a silly superstition, are so regularly struck with complete horror by the two voodoo practitioners in the book.

Martie Howell is accompanying her snotty patient, Lisa Long, back to her home in Haiti. Lisa is far more childlike than any Haitian we meet, and flirts with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, slapping Martie one minute and then, a moment later, flinging herself at her nurse and clinging to her, crying, “Martie, don’t leave me!” Martie responds to Lisa’s tantrums by threatening to “paddle” her and otherwise treating her like a two-year-old: “She’s feeling very sorry for herself because she’s tired and excited,” she tells Lisa’s jilted beau, Dr. Evan Carter, who they encounter on the boat carrying them to Haiti. Lisa and Evan are still in love, but not allowed to marry because the domineering aged family matriarch, Donna Luisa, has decreed that Lisa will marry next-door neighbor Hugh Balcom, so as to unite the two estates. When Martie meets Hugh, she is dismayed to find that he is “spectacularly good-looking,” so it seems pretty clear how things are going to stack up at the end of the book. Indeed, it isn’t long before Hugh and Martie are kissing, but she attempts to squelch the blossoming romance by telling him, “A mere casual kiss is considered no more important nowadays than a cordial hand-shake.” He is understandably cool toward her after that.

Martie soon discovers that Lisa owns the estate, which Donna Luisa is managing on her behalf, and that Lisa will take control of it on her 21st birthday. Luisa has been hiding this fact so as to exert her power over Lisa, as Lisa under the impression that she is living on Donna Luisa’s largesse and “owes” it to Luisa to marry Hugh. Martie informs Luisa that she is going to spill the beans, so Luisa attempts to fire Martie but suffers a stroke before she is able to complete the deed. When Hugh hears of this, he blames Martie for Luisa’s stroke, as does the local medico, Dr. Eaves. Madame Clélie, a local voodoo witch, arrives to nurse Luisa, and Martie decides she will move to the hospital and work with Dr. Eaves until she can leave Haiti. While she is packing, however, she finds a tarantula in her bed, and though she squashes it flat, she is convinced that Madame Clélie is trying to poison her. She is so spooked by the idea that Dr. Eaves agrees with her plan to leave Haiti: “Once this voodoo stuff gets under your skin, you can easily imagine yourself into a nervous breakdown.”

But the boat isn’t due for a few weeks, so she has time to work with Dr. Eaves at his hospital. The next news from the hacienda is that all has been set to rights: Hugh has thrown Madame Clélie out of the house, Lisa has called Dr. Evan to care for Donna Luisa, and Luisa has started to recover and now approves of Evan. So the very same group of people who looked upon Martie with disgust after Luisa’s stroke are now telling her that Luisa’s stroke was “the best thing that could have happened.” Before you know it, Luisa is hosting a dinner party with Martie as the guest of honor, and apologizing to Martie for her atrocious behavior. All we need to do is throw Martie into Hugh’s arms and wade through several nauseating paragraphs—to wit, “She was trembling from head to foot, and in her heart there was music so glorious, so unutterably perfect that she could only listen in awe and ecstasy”—and then we can put the tropics behind us. Though the question of how Martie, who previously couldn’t get out of Haiti fast enough, is going to manage life there is left unanswered.

This book is not worth reading as an interesting story or even as an armchair travelogue. The characters are not particularly attractive; even Martie is disdainful to her patient and the Haitians, overly hysterical about voodoo, and pathetically wide-eyed with Dr. Eaves and Hugh. Really the only interesting person in the book is a talented Haitian surgeon, who is viewed as somewhat tragic, as some white folks (Donna Luisa among them) won’t allow a black man to treat them. But he doesn’t seem too upset by that fact: “ ‘I am of the black people, Mam’selle Martie,’ he said and there was no trace of humility in his voice. Instead there was a pride that bordered on arrogance.” After enduring 160 pages of these ugly Americans, I can’t say I blame him for being glad he is not one of them.  

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