Sunday, November 10, 2013

Nurse Melinda

By Peggy Gaddis, ©1960
Nurse Melinda Bonner once hotly declared to her supervisor that she had enough love for all children—inside the hospital and out. But one shy, dark little boy—an orphan, with only a stern guardian for a family—had a special place in her affections. The strange circumstances under which little Pietro was brought to the hospital, and the unusual interest shown in the child by the dazzling movie star, Peter Fife, puzzle Melinda, and plunge her into an absorbing drama of human relations and emotions. What ensues taxes not only her skill as a nurse, but her heart.
“ ‘You look as fresh and gay as a sprig of white lilac on a spring day,’ the nurse told her, and added grimly, ‘Well, we’ll put a stop to that in short order.’ ”
“Well, I gotta hop down to the airport and pick up a package. And what a package! Really stacked, Chet, my boy—really stacked!”
When we first meet Nurse Melinda Bonner, she is on the job on the pediatric orthopedics ward, and a 12-year-old boy has just offered up “a very creditable wolf whistle.” Does she respond with a stern lecture about respect and appropriate behavior? “ ‘Why, thank you, Tommy,’ she said brightly. ‘That’s very flattering.’ ” I am old enough to remember the days when men—construction workers, mostly—would whistle at you, and I found it only creepy.
After this, though, Melinda firmly establishes herself as a woman with convictions and backbone steady enough to stand up for them. In fact, on the third page, she’s been called into the office of hospital Chief Dr. Grayle and dressed down for hugging five-year-old Pietro Gardella, recovering from a clubfoot repair. This, she is told, violates the hospital’s number-one rule: Don’t get involved with a patient. Pietro is an orphan being raised by a guardian, so if the boy becomes too attached to Melinda, Dr. Grayle says, “When he leaves here, he will grieve himself sick for you.” But Melinda refuses to promise she will stop being affectionate to her young charges: “I feel very sure that gentleness and affection and understanding of their small problems are as important to their recovery as all your medical skill,” she tells him. “I assure you, Doctor, I have enough love in my heart to embrace every child in the hospital—and out of it, too!” Her devotion to children is so great that even when they get a “spoiled rotten stinker,” Melinda defends them as “scared,” insisting they will “settle down,” and tells her co-workers they should never call their patients “brat.”
When she meets Mrs. Lansdowne, Pietro’s guardian, she’s more convinced than ever that she’s right to shower little Pietro with love: His guardian is “quite cold” and has visited the boy only once, to tell him that his “wretched” kitten, “a nasty, messy nuisance,” has disappeared and was probably run over. Melinda is horrified by this “old witch,” who, she tells Dr. Grayle, clearly terrifies Pietro and cares not a whit for him. It breaks Melinda’s heart to think that Pietro must go home to this “stern, self-righteous” ogre, but what can be done?
Then teen heartthrob Peter Fife visits the floor to take publicity photos of him handing out toys to sick children. Melinda, far from being impressed, is disgusted at the disturbance to the hospital routine and the way that the children are being used to further Peter’s image. But when Peter reaches little Pietro’s bed, he is suddenly transfixed by the boy. The two begin speaking in Italian, and Peter orders the photographers away. After bonding with Pietro, he asks Melinda to dinner. Though she despises him and everything he stands for, she agrees only because she loves Pietro, and over dinner at his house later, Peter explains that he is actually Pietro’s father—which comes as no surprise to the reader. He’d been in Italy shooting a film and fallen in love with a young Italian woman there. They’d secretly married, but Angelina’s family had spirited her away when they found out about it. Peter had been unable to find her, and had not even known she was pregnant. Then he was drafted into the Army, and when he got out years later he hired private investigators, who’d learned that Angelina had died in childbirth and that his son had been placed in the care of a guardian and was in the U.S. for treatment for a club foot. He’d been combing the pediatrics wards of American hospitals ever since, in the event that his son might turn up there. Now through the miracles of bad plotting they’ve found each other, but Peter has no proof that he is Pietro’s father, so he can’t just claim the lad outright. But if only Melinda will marry him, he will be able to adopt the boy and they can all live happily ever after!
She emphatically declines, thankfully, but curiously tells Peter, “I am sure Miss Lansdowne loves Pietro and is good to him,” though she herself has seen first-hand that neither one is true. She adds, “A nurse would be of very little value to a hospital if she went around giving out bits of her heart to every child who comes under her care.” Exactly what we’re supposed to make of her lies and hypocrisy is unclear.
In the next few weeks Peter visits Pietro often—remember, these are the days when patients stayed in the hospital for months—and his devotion begins to melt Melinda’s frost. Eventually Pietro is healed and sent off to Florida with “grim” Miss Lansdowne, and Melinda’s cries as she never does when patients go home to “loving families, people I know will be kind and gentle.” Again, curiously, she tells Peter afterward, that Miss Lansdowne is, “I’m sure, devoted to Pietro.” Down in Florida, however, it isn’t long before Pietro runs away: He climbs into a car idling by his house and is unceremoniously dumped out by the road when he is discovered, then found by a poor family and taken in as “a Wop kid” abandoned by “fruit tramps.” When Peter hears that Pietro is missing, he uses his stardom to get the boy’s picture—as well as the news that he is Pietro’s father, which Miss Lansdowne immediately publicly affirms, nullifying Peter’s original concerns that he would never obtain custody of Pietro if he just asked—plastered on every front page in the country. Pietro is found shortly, and goes off with Peter to Idaho for a month while Peter films a movie.
The Petes, junior and senior, visit Melinda when they return from location, and something terrible has happened: In a few short weeks, Pietro is now “a spoiled, self-satisfied, arrogant little boy.” Now Melinda is Miss Lansdowne’s biggest fan: “It does seem a shame for you to tear down in three weeks all that Miss Lansdowne did in five years, to make him into a charming, well-behaved little boy,” she tells Peter. She goes on an outing with them, and decides never to see them again: “I’m fond of Pietro—that is, I was! But the kind of little boy he is now—no, thanks!” I can hardly believe this is the same woman who defended the brats on her ward in Chapter 1. She and Peter have a huge fight about child-rearing, but it’s side-tracked when she admits that she is in love with Peter, after all—did anyone else see that coming?—but can’t marry him because “I wouldn’t stand by and see you turn Pietro into a mean, nasty, spoiled brat—not after Miss Lansdowne did such a fine job.” Really? Instead of agreeing that Melinda’s admittedly sound ideas about discipline are correct, Peter wakes Pietro up and uses the boy—as he refused to do for his publicity shots in the beginning of the book—to convince Melinda to marry him. She melts, and now the three are a happy family, and all is right with the world.
As I have adopted the cover illustration on this book for my own blog’s banner, I had a lot invested in this book. And initially, when Melinda is a spunky, spirited, right-minded gal and her fellow nurses are witty and sharp, I was very pleased with it. The writing also has fine moments, such as, “Melinda made a flying clutch at her self-control and only just managed to catch it.” But the story becomes overly bogged down with Peter’s backstory (we are also treated to the tragic saga of how he ended up a famous singer, the poor thing, which I have mercifully spared you) and the lengthy search for Pietro. Furthermore, Melinda’s total about-face on showing affection to all children and her opinion of Miss Lansdowne is bewildering and annoying. The plot has more holes than a colander, and we’re left with the impression that getting married is somehow going to solve Peter and Melinda’s disagreements over Pietro’s upbringing. Furthermore, the issue of how Melinda is going to respond to being cast into the enormous spotlight of fame that Peter lives in (screaming mobs of girls literally claw him when he goes out in public), when she has strenuously objected to it all through the book, remains unaddressed as well. If author Peggy Gaddis had finished the book in the same vein in which she started it, I would be mighty pleased; as it ends, I am not.

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