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 fiancée, 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.

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