Saturday, June 29, 2013

Doctor Sara

By Peggy Gaddis, ©1963
Cover illustration by Robert Maguire

“I never did hold with women doctors,” sneered Blade Morrisey, whose word was law on little Fisher’s Island. But lovely Dr. Sara Winslow was doing a man’s job, and she was used to fighting masculine prejudice. She was determined to win over Blade and the few like him who scoffed at the “lady doctor.” The lonely man in the lighthouse was another matter. Why was he on the island? And why did her heart behave so strangely when they met?


“I’m a woman. Aren’t women supposed to spend practically their whole lives hunting for a man to marry?”

“Makes me wonder why people call women the weaker sex. Oh, they get scared of things like mice and snakes—but they’ve got more guts than any man could ever hope to have, when it comes to things that really matter.”

“ ‘Man, he’s sure a son-of-a-gun—askin’ your pardon, Miss Doc.’
“ ‘Think nothing of it, Pop,’ Sara answered, ‘There are times when I’d like to use the same expression.’ ”

“Darling, don’t tell me you’re slipping? The girl’s not in love with you. I can’t believe that!”

“If a man I loved so much as gave me a warm glance, I’d hare him off to a preacher so fast he wouldn’t know what had happened to him.”

“I wish I could knit—I bet that would throw the poor darling for a row of Chinese pagodas!”

Sara Winslow is a 27-year-old doctor tired of Atlanta. So she heads home to North Carolina to see Jane and Arthur Mayson, who have raised this (guess) orphan since her parents were killed in a hurricane when she was five. Arthur runs her out to his favorite fishing port, Fisher’s Island, which has a winter population of 300. It seems their doctor just died, and now they have none—and what they wouldn’t give if Sara, even if she is a “lady doctor” and not a man, would come take his position! (There is one fella, of the unfortunate name of Blade Morrissey, who thinks women shouldn’t be doctors, but he’s quickly won over when Sara diagnoses his only daughter with leukemia.)

So Sara moves to the island and starts birthing babies and sewing up wounds. And wondering about the man who has rented the defunct lighthouse and brooks no trespassers. But before long, he’s injured too, with a deep wound he claims was inflicted by a shark, so now she has to go up and spar with the ornery old cuss. (She quickly discovers a heart murmur, and tells him it’s not serious—“yet. It could be, if you over-exert yourself or worry very much. Bed rest will help a lot.” So though everyone who meets her is soon singing hosannas about what a great doctor she is, they might change their minds if they actually knew something about medicine.) Terence O’Toole (also an orphan) soon warms up to her, and by way of making a pass, tells her that he is “forbidden” to tell her about how he got hurt. “If the mission on which I came here is accomplished successfully, then I can tell you the whole story,” pleads the blabbermouth. But he’s going to have to be replaced soon, he adds, because the enemy has seen his face. He’s about as good a confidential agent as she is a doctor.

Another man comes to the island, Tracy Harper, and though no one trusts him for a second, he’s soon taking Sara out on dates and the local kids out on his boat. As evidence of his shifty character, after she sees Tracy sneaking into the lighthouse, he denies having been there. Even Terence says he doesn’t trust Tracy, and tells Sara that Tracy says he’s been sent to replace Terence on the secret mission. He asks Sara to look into Tracy’s background; “I ask this not just for my own sake but for yours—and the country’s.” Then he kisses Sara, so it seems her reputation will be shot, since we already know that Terence can’t keep a secret. Detective Sara soon uncovers the truth about Tracy—despite the fact that every adult who’s met him thinks he is a slimy snake, he’s exactly who he says he is! But even more interesting is the fact that a dangerous pursuer has tracked him down and landed on the island to capture him—Mimi Courtney, his fiancĂ©e, who modestly claims that uncovering the secret agent “didn’t take much of the detective instinct—you left a trail a mile wide.” Then Sara tells Jane and Arthur the whole story about Terence, because, heck, with all the people who already know about this secret mission, a few more can’t hurt! If our national security actually ever depended on folks like these, it would be time to move to Canada.

Back on the island, Sara tells Terence that Tracy is indeed legit, so Terence decides to spill the rest of the beans, “since we both will be leaving here soon,” he tells her, adding, when she protests, “Oh, it’s a wife’s duty to go wherever her husband is sent.” In response, Sara tells him where to put his colossal ego, that she’s not leaving the island, that he’s been nothing but rude to her, so why should she want to marry him? With all this before him, he quickly agrees that he’s been a presumptuous fool and it won’t happen again. “Sara had the silly feeling she had been let down. She had been prepared to fence with him, to go on arguing with him, and she had known instinctively that in the end he would win, not she.” And so we have the patented Peggy Gaddis ending: She wants something, but he says she can’t have it if she marries him, so she agrees to give it up—and in the end, he decides she can have it after all. What a nice man. It’s going to take us a few more pages to get to that point, but we’ve already gotten the telegram that it’s on its way.

It arrives in the form of an apparent mob, when the local fishermen, led by Tracy Harper, go storming up to the lighthouse. Sara, concerned for her man, goes with them, and insists on going in first, because “he’s my patient, and I didn’t want him to have a shock.” The nice mob lets her do that, and when Sara puts her arm around Terence and calls him darling, “he was touched with awe and wonder,” and I was touched with the heaves. But it turns out that it’s not a mob after all; Tracy has brought the men up to hear him tell Terence that “the Big Boy himself” has agreed that they don’t need to keep the mission a secret anymore, so sit back and enjoy the tale: There’s this town in Russia that looks exactly like an American city, and everyone there has been brought up to be exactly like Americans, except they’re fervently patriotic to Mother Russia. “They are to be infiltrated into this country and sent where they can do the most harm to us, the most good to their own country; to ‘sow seeds of discord wherever the soil is fertile.’ ” Terence had come across one trawler smuggling in a few of the mock Americans and been wounded by them, but instead of killing him, “as a gesture of contempt, to show us that they knew we were onto them and that they were abandoning this route,” they left him to be found. But now “Headquarters” has decided to let the locals know about this so they can guard the seacoast themselves, with a little help from the Coast Guard. Now that the story is out in the open, instead of becoming hysterical over the idea of Russians invading the country and living amongst them, everyone calmly goes home and goes to bed.

But the next morning, Sara is back at the lighthouse. He asks her if she wants to stay on the island, but the idiot replies, “I want to marry you, and anywhere you go, I want to go!” But when he says he’s resigning from “the service” to marry her, she’s shot through with doubt. “You must stay on—alone, if that’s what they require.” When he points out that she was ready to give up her job, she says, “It’s only that marriage means so much more to a woman than it does to a man.” Fortunately, Terence snaps, “Who ever fed you that bit of guff? There’s not a word of truth in it, believe me!” He’s going to start working as a fishing guide so the two can stay on the island. “I won’t be a beachcomber, living off my wife,” he concludes. Phew! A happy ending!

What bothers me most about Peggy’s I-go-where-my-man-goes endings is that while she usually gives the heroine what she wants, it’s because the man agrees to let her have it, which is too much of a copout. Here we do have Terence rejecting the idea outright, but Peggy doesn’t really mean what he says; she has Mimi espousing the same tripe—“I’m going to be the kind of wife who goes where her husband goes, whether it’s Alaska or Aruba!”—without a peep of protest from anyone. And don’t forget that Terence’s first proposal came in the form of a declaration that Sara would have to leave the island when she married him. Even if it’s sugar-coated, a poison pill will still kill you.

Doctor Sara is one of Peggy Gaddis’ milder novels. It takes a long while to get going, and if we don’t get much in the way of particularly egregious attitudes until 20 pages from the end, neither does it possess any of the absurdities or camp that can make her novels such fun. Not one of the characters shows any sparkle except Mimi, and she doesn’t pop up until page 100, and then we see too little of her. This work just cruises along, neither too cold nor too hot. So because it is lukewarm, I suggest you leave it on the shelf.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Nurse Tennant

By Elizabeth Hoy, ©1959
Cover illustration by Jack Harman

Nurse Sally Tennant entered the Matron’s cosy sitting-room in St. Winifred’s Nurses’ Home. She was sitting at her neat writing desk, one business-like ear pressed into the telephone. “Yes, Yes,” she was saying. “A good sailor: Yes, of course that would be essential. Naturally I will send someone capable of assuming entire responsibility. Passport? Yes, I’ll see that her passport is in order. Anything else? You’d like her to be along tomorrow afternoon. Yes, I have a most excellent nurse free at the moment.” Miss Hines hung up the receiver and peered at Sally’s interested face over her spectacles. “Did you want me, Matron?” Sally asked breathlessly. Good sailor, she was thinking wildly. Passport … boat sailing the day after tomorrow! It couldn’t be true that words like these could have anything to do with a case of nursing! But it was true. The steamship “Morning Glory” was setting out on a southern sunshine cruise and their nursing sister had fallen ill at the last moment. Thus Sally found herself with the most interesting nursing assignment she could have imagined. And much to her surprise the Assistant Surgeon turned out to be an old acquaintance, Dr. Jimmy Dykell …


“She wished frantically that she were back in some nice safe operating theatre where the worst thing that ever happened at tables was that people died on them.”

“It was a lonely thing when lovely things happened to you like this sea trip to have no one special you could tell about it.”

“She’d pictured the Americans as rather noisy and loud, given to exclaiming ‘Gee!’ and ‘Gosh!’ and “Swell’ in an extremely nasal manner.”

“The real man, the he-man, is always clumsy and hurtful and a bit cruel. That’s what makes him so adorable. Preserve me from the type of male who ‘understands’ women. They’re the world’s bores, believe me. I’ve men some and I know.”

“Thank goodness I’ve always been well enough to keep clear of hospitals and their tortures.”

“Most girls are so boring that the sooner you can shut their mouths with a kiss the more bearable they are.”

“He won’t be talking to her about diaphragms and arteries, she thought with sudden acrid bitterness.”

“I can’t jilt Sally very well before marriage. It seems to me so much less insulting to do it afterwards. Divorce is simple, and alimony usually comforts women quite a lot.”

What a relief to find a good VNRN! After a long string of lousy books, Nurse Tennant has restored my devotion to the genre—and, with Town Nurse—Country Nurse, in the Harlequin imprint, which so far this year has not been kind to me.

Sally Tennant is a private nurse suffering another drab English summer and an endless string of gouty old men patients. But then she’s given a position on a cruise ship about to depart for the Mediterranean: “The nursing sister of the Morning Glory had fallen ill at the eleventh hour. Kind, considerate nursing sister!” When she boards the ship, however, she finds that the resident doctor is none other than Jimmy Dykell, a young doctor whom she had dated two years ago, hoping to marry, until Jimmy’s mother took her aside and told her that if he were to marry, it would distract him from his burgeoning sure-to-be-brilliant career, and Sally wouldn’t want to be responsible for Jimmy’s failure, would she? No, she wouldn’t, so she’d started seeing other men, leaving Jimmy to wonder, broken-hearted. Now, reunited professionally, at least, Jimmy is looking at her with cold eyes, and her great stroke of luck has turned to torture.

Part of her job is to dine with a table of passengers, and she lands a group of Americans traveling together: Dulcie Manners, age 19, and her mother; and the Seldens and their son, Derek. The two youngsters are supposed to marry, but Dulcie has instead gotten herself secretly engaged to Jimmy, whom she met a couple of months ago on holiday in Scotland. Dulcie is spoiled and shallow, with a tendency to say things like, “I think your uniform is the cutest thing!” and, “Aren’t men just too stupid for words?” But she’s also likable, and so with mixed feelings, Sally befriends with Dulcie, promising to help Dulcie convince her mother that becoming Mrs. Dykell would be the best thing to ever happen to the teenager. Mrs. Manners, however, has a rapidly shrinking bank account, so she is eying the Seldens’ fortune with admiration and is not inclined to be impressed by a new MD with nothing but prospects to keep him warm.

Though Jimmy is usually cold and aloof with Sally on duty, from time to time he does find her charms irresistible, such as when she’s about to go blundering off a cliff in Monte Carlo and he feels compelled to pull her into his arms and kiss her, so relieved is he that he’s saved her from the fatal plunge. He also clearly appreciates her (naturally) superior nursing skills, and is forever encouraging her to raise her sights beyond being a visiting nurse. He has a very strong faith in the excellence of her character, and as time passes and they warm up a bit to each other, he presses her on occasion to explain why she left him. Though she still loves him and yearns for him tragically, she can’t break her promise to Dulcie and feels her own chance with Jimmy has passed, so she can’t bring herself to tell him the truth. “It is nothing to him that my hair is piled up in the very newest of little curls on my forehead, that I’ve opened my best bottle of Chanel, or that this dress suits me better than most,” she despairs at one point. Their relationship feels genuine, and genuinely painful, and I believed it.

With Dulcie set to marry Jimmy, Derek is left out in the cold, but not to worry—he soon discovers Sally’s attractions. “Listen, darling!” he tells her. “I’m rich and I’m not altogether of a villainous disposition. I could give you a rattling good time. Wouldn’t it be better to marry me than go back to this dull job of yours?” Sally, seeing an easy way to deter Jimmy once and for all—since his own engagement hasn’t stopped him from displaying his affection for her on occasion—agrees to this unique proposal. It’s better to be in a loveless marriage than alone, she reasons: “Miss Tennant, spinster, she thought with a shudder, a gaunt, gray-haired creature with a  gallant smile nailed to her haggish, thin-lipped countenance, a smile that grew more and more gallant and apologetic as the years went by. That was probably what happened to you if you wasted your whole heart over one fruitless unhappy love affair and neglected to find yourself a nice sensible husband!”

Sally also takes up with aging and wealthy Mrs. de Frene, who has a fatal heart condition and is expecting to die on this cruise. But she doesn’t mind, really, because then she’ll be with her beloved husband in heaven. It’s a common device, the aged wealthy widow who you can tell from the minute you clap eyes on her is going to end up leaving our heroine with a bundle of money, but Frene is a sweetly drawn character, and I didn’t mind at all the otherwise trite plot device.

This is a top-notch book, livelier than most, entertaining, and sincere. For starters, I loved Elizabeth Hoy’s writing from the second sentence: “From the double row of sturdy plane trees the leaves blew down, torn and brown and finished.” Throughout the book, little gems like this sparkle. Sally is not the ordinary VNRN heroine, but has spunk and intelligence and humor. Other characters also are not simplistic; while it would be easy to make Dulcie into an undeserving, spoiled snippet, she is in the end sympathetic, even if she is admittedly vapid. Scenes when Sally and Jimmy are together, and Sally is feeling both drawn to him and the impossibleness of having him, feel real, even a painful. The ending is one of the nicer I’ve read, sweet without being nauseating, and including the smartly self-aware sentence, “There isn’t much more of importance to add to the history of Sally and Jimmy.” And so it was with complete satisfaction that I closed Nurse Tennant, and it is with eagerness I look forward to Elizabeth Hoy’s three other nurse novels. 

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Harmony Hospital

By Jeanne Bowman
(pseud. Peggy O’More Blocklinger), ©1967

Life or death cases were nothing to Linda Lovell … but the mysteries she encountered during her nights in the mansion of Harmony’s benefactress Marion Mangrove threatened to destroy her. Why was intern Dan Mavery afraid to enter the mansion? Why was Marion always spying on Linda? Why was Bob Ingersoll, the man who once jilted Linda, now trying to win her back? And why, if Dr. Ed Eaton loved Linda, did he warn her to beware of Marion’s actions—and leave her there!


“Yesterday, walking on the avenue, a small boy took one look at me and hid under his mother’s skirt. Quite a feat these days. What?”

“I know what I’d like to give you, but as this is a hospital and Emergency’s right over there, you’d recover too quickly.”

When I was in college, a friend who was fighting a frustrating and lopsided battle with acne declared that he was going to just give up and rub Crisco on his face. After a long string of C- nurse novels, I was feeling the same defeated despair, and so chose a book by Jeanne Bowman for my next review. If I’m going to read a lousy book, at least I have no disappointed hopes with Ms. Bowman.

Well, that’s not entirely true, because the book’s cover is an outright lie: Our heroine, Linda Lovell, is not a nurse’s aide, but what appears to be a secretary (among other clerical tasks, she types up patient menus) for Harmony Hospital, so this is not even a nurse novel. (Neither, as you might suspect from the back cover blurb, is Dan Mavery an intern, or is Bob Ingersoll trying to win her back, or does Marion ever spy on Linda, and during her nights in the mansion, Linda is only sleeping, not encountering any mysteries. But let’s not split hairs.) Linda had wanted to be a nurse, but “when there is limited income, a family concentrates on the one with brains. I have none. It’s been said I was born with an IBM where gray matter should be,” she says, and though this makes no sense to me, it means that the family has chosen to put her older brother through medical school instead of her through nursing school.

On her first day at work, she is essentially picked up by Marion Mangrove, who lives in the mansion next door with her mother, who is never given a first name and is only known as Mrs. Mangrove, even after she marries Mr. Dealy at the end of the book. Marion drives Linda back to Linda’s family’s house in the country, packs Linda’s bags, and then, back at the mansion, unpacks for her as well. Immediately she’s calling upon Linda to help her chauffeur and watch and cut up meat for Mrs. Mangrove, who lives in a wheelchair, though she can walk and do needlepoint perfectly well. Linda is not happy about this domineering landlady but fears that she will lose her job if she moves out of the Mangrove house, as Marion has some unspecified influence at the hospital.

Really, that’s about all there is to the book. The story is about Linda’s attempts to throw off Marion’s chains, free Mrs. Mangrove from the wheelchair, and heal Marion’s controlling personality disorder. And win the affections of Dr. Ed Eaton. Woven through dates, taken by sneaking out the back door when Marion isn’t looking, and typing at the hospital, and Marion’s eventual nervous collapse and hospitalization, are the classic Bowman pop psychology moments. “It is not Marian herself one fights, but your own recoil from the fear thoughts she throws out. And they react upon us physically. We’re so determined she shall not be right, we tense the very areas she indicates and bring about our downfall,” explains Mrs. Mangrove. This is why Marion’s early beau drove off a cliff; she had insisted that he was too upset after a quarrel to drive. You see the power this woman has!

In Harmony Hospital, Jeanne Bowman overindulges in her penchant for alliterative names: Of course, there’s Linda Lovell, and her siblings Leon and Lucille Lovell; Marion Mangrove and her father Max and brother, the curiously named Manuel Mangrove; Edward Eaton, Emily Enders, Carrie Carlton, and Dick Dealy. Her writing continues to prove clunky and obtuse; characters regularly drop analytical and clumsy remarks such as, “Have you time to sit down and elucidate?” “Linda asked aloud if whales traveled in families or checked water displacement intuitively to determine how many moved within a short distance.” “I might say prothrombin is indicated instead of the three of spades.” “Don’t blame the building [for the tragedies that have taken place there]. It’s the people who inhabit it, their chemical reactions to other people that precipitate events.” Standing on its own, one unwieldy sentence seems harmless enough, but when you keep slamming into these verbal brick walls on about every other page, it’s way too much.

Then we get a too-swift conclusion when Mrs. Mangrove, Marion Mangrove, and even lovely Linda Lovell are healed by the power of marriage at the end of the book—though it must be confessed that all we know about Marion’s rehabilitation is that one of Linda’s beaux tells her, after yet another psychoanalytical treatment of Marion’s character, that he’s planning to marry the little tyrant and move to the city (why in God’s name he would subject himself to such a cruel fate is never explained), so we can only assume that Ms. Bowman intends for Marion to accept and, once she’s attained that gold ring, settle down. I, for one, am not optimistic, since the commandeering Marion has shown absolutely no traces of flexibility or human consideration at any point in the book.

It must be admitted that despite its faults, this is actually one of Ms. Bowman’s more innocuous titles. That said, it’s still not worth picking up. So my self-imposed exercise in defeatism now complete, I’m not sure that I feel any better, except now I know that I have one less book by Jeanne Bowman left to read. Which I guess does count for something, no matter how small.