Dr. Eve Cameron, just graduated from medical school, came home to the small Georgia town her family had ruled for generations. There, she took over her uncle’s big country practice—determined to devote her life to the poor. But young, red-headed Matt Sanders, son of an overseer and now superintendent of the paper mills, told her she was only playing doctor. He knew Eve was the glamorous heiress of the Cameron fortune and he couldn’t believe this spoiled girl would persevere in her desperate battle against poverty, disease and vice. Eve Cameron thought she didn’t care what Matt Sanders said. She had no interest in either men or love—
“Mighty few people really make the bed they lie in.”
“The kind of courteous you have to try to be is usually worse than out-and-out rudeness, don’t you think?”
“Other girls sat in the swing and talked to boys; she went out and set bones.”
“She felt relaxed for the first time, felt more like a girl than a doctor.”
“As for my killing off your patients, I’m doing it so that you’ll get some rest when you get home.”
“You’d be a real inspiration to any man to get well. Or to have an illness that went on and on.”
“I wouldn’t want to marry Bob if I was going to be horrid looking for the rest of my life. It wouldn’t be fair.”
“I guess I’ll have to teach you about adjectives. You certainly scatter them about with a careless hand.”
In the great VNRN tradition, wealthy and beautiful Eve Cameron is returning to her tiny home town of Quiet Harbor after having been jilted by Dr. Smoke Jones, who dumped her for a plain, freckled nurse with “a vacant stare.” She’s planning to lie low for a bit and knit her broken heart back together again before moving on to a glamorous job in the city. Arriving home, she discovers that a paper mill has been built in town by her uncle Peter, and it blankets the town in a horrible sour smell—but has also brought jobs and money to town. She also discovers that Matt Sanders, a former grade-school classmate who was “a whiz at arithmetic,” is now the plant supervisor and seems to be carrying a mighty big chip on his shoulder toward her and her well-heeled family. But she doesn’t have much time to think about that opinionated, self-satisfied young man, because her Uncle Rufus, the town doctor, suffers a heart attack and is now out of commission for a couple of months. So she picks up his black bag and starts ministering to the populace.
Matt, meantime, is trying to get a clinic started at his mill, and condescends to ask Eve for her help. She advises him regarding the supplies he’ll need and where to get the best bargains and how to find a good nurse to staff the clinic. The two run hot and cold with each other, one minute all friendly and the next minute flaring with insults, so you can clearly see where that’s going. Curiously, the relationship causes Eve to develop an inferiority complex, and she regularly worries that she is overbearing when she tries to improve the lives of some of the poor folk around her, which her uncle calls “just plain bossiness.” She compares herself to the nurse Matt’s hired, who is “purry and utterly feminine,” and worries that “Matt Sanders hadn’t said she was a woman. Perhaps he didn’t even think of her as one. He was probably one of those dodoes in his thinking who considered a woman who didn’t sweep and wash dishes and iron and cook three meals a day to have forfeited her womanhood. He probably thought of her as—as— She couldn’t think of the word she wanted, but she was sure it wasn’t complimentary or feminine. Darn Matt Sanders anyhow. She’d show him. When he got back she’d show him who was a woman.” She starts fretting about the fact that Matt isn’t going to like her, and at a meeting with him about the clinic, she bursts out, “Do you think I’m unfeminine, unlikable, because I butt into other people’s business, because I try to manage their lives?” Matt sputters in surprise, and she stomps out, humiliated, and vows to leave Quiet Harbor posthaste.
I’ve always had a difficult time with the word feminine. It purports to equal female, but it also includes all the stereotypical ideas of what a woman is supposed to be—delicate, pretty, gentle—all of which are completely artificial and an identity that others have forced on women. So the minute I come across it, up go my hackles—and when its opposite, bossy, is trucked out at the same time, look out! Are men ever called bossy, or is it just in women that initiative, drive, and executive abilities are considered a bad thing? I’m surprised that a woman as smart as Eve Cameron doesn’t see through the paradox she is creating for herself with her anxieties: If she were meek and mild, she certainly could not succeed as a country doctor, so her determination to be more timid so that Matt will like her seems completely at odds with her desire to be a great doctor, not to mention contrary to her very nature. It’s true that, a few pages after her confrontation with Matt, after she’s set up one girl in a poor family to go to nursing school and another to secretarial school, she feels pretty pleased with herself. “It was a good way for a country doctor to be, even if it wasn’t feminine. She’d be careful and try to be tactful in her bossiness, and if no man ever came along that appreciated a woman who wanted things better—well, she’d be a bachelor like Uncle Rufus.” But it’s not a complete victory, as she still feels she has to try to soften her ambition to make it more palatable to potential husbands. And in the end, the issue of her ambition is left unresolved when she and Matt finally hook up and he never weighs in on this central theme.
Overall this is a pleasant book, well-written and entertaining, but not really offering any especial jewels to put it above the madding crowd. Eve is a good character but not a great one, and her anguish over her gumption is irritating to a modern reader and never satisfactorily put away as silliness. I enjoyed following Eve on her rounds and watching her work, performing surgery and delivering babies, and if the back-cover blurb (see above, in italics) was erroneous both in its depiction of her character and of the plot, I think it’s a better book than what we were set up to expect.