Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Desert Nurse

By Marguerite Nelson, ©1964
Three’s a crowd—and blonde Nurse Nacie Williams knew it. But in her new job as district nurse, she was suddenly one-third of a trio. Two men loved Nacie—and she cared for both of them. But only one meant love. Only one could be her future. Was it the handsome doctor? Or the young high school principal? Why couldn’t she decide?
“Nacie didn’t trust a living room as spotless as this one. It showed a tendency for its housekeeper to dwell on trivialities and sometimes let the big issue—the important things—slide by unnoticed.”
“You’re too beautiful to be a nurse. Nurses should be bony, homely animals—then no doctor or patient would fall in love with them.”
Nurse Nacie Williams is, I am sorry to report, “a small, beautiful girl with sea-blue eyes and glistening blonde hair, trim in her white uniform, her nurse’s cap perched at a jaunty angle.” She’s the county’s school nurse, overseeing elementary and high schools in Mountain City, in the California desert, including both the mainstream population and the Wapi Indian Reservation. As the book opens, she has two major concerns on her hands: Enid Marconi, who has fainted in English class, and the gentlemen she is dating, Principal Hal Edwards and Dr. Gary Morgan. Enid seems healthy, but Nurse Nacie soon discovers that Enid’s father hasn’t had a job in eight months and has run through his unemployment insurance. If nursing ever wears thin, she should consider detective work.
Anyway, Nacie suspects that Enid simply isn’t getting enough to eat, but instead of chasing down this lead (maybe detective work isn’t going to work for her after all), she exerts an enormous amount of energy getting Enid a free physical, wrangling with doctors and their office nurses and Enid’s father for more than a week before grumpy Dr. Hanson finally gets around to it. In the meantime, we hear a lot about Enid’s headaches and the extensive differential diagnosis that could have led to the notorious syncopal episode. Nacie’s attempts to cure the child of whatever unknown disease might be ailing her even go so far as coercing a male student to ask Enid to the school’s Get Acquainted Hop—which, in a school with only 200 students, seems unlikely to be necessary. In the high school of that size that I attended, the biggest obstacle to dating was not that you didn’t know the other students, it was that you were related to at least 20 percent of them. In any event, Nacie’s endeavors in this regard are for naught when, on the weekend of the big dance, the boy hitch-hikes to Los Angeles and enlists in the Army, we can only hope for reasons other than to get out of the date. Nacie sighs in relief: “Let’s not try this caper again,” she tells co-conspirator Hal. “It might backfire, and with serious repercussions.” Uh, right.
Having missed the obvious lesson, Nacie looks around for something else she shouldn’t get involved in, and drops by the electrical union office to beg for a job on Mr. Marconi’s behalf. Here, though, she meets with more success: The union boss surprisingly agrees to move Mr. Marconi to the top of the list for a job that starts next week. And on his first day, Nacies spots Enid in the line for the school’s hot lunch, when previously the girl had been bringing her own lunches—a story Nacie has doubted but never bothered to check out. A week later Enid is blooming and walking down the hall with boys. “Enid had only fainted from malnutrition,” Nacie sighs with relief, having done not one thing to feed the child in the past weeks.
This little problem solved, Nacie can now worry about her boyfriends. She sees both Gary and Hal regularly, and gets involved in some fairly hot necking in their cars at the end of her dates. The shameless hussy, on a date with Gary, “her arms had gone boldly around his neck,” though after kissing him “long and ardently,” putting her arm around his neck seems hardly bold. She’s repeatedly worrying that “she was getting involved—deeply—with two men. Had she led them on?” she wonders, after all that smooching. “The ultimate goal of ‘going steady’ was marriage,” she decides, then frets over whether she will have to quit the job that she loves when she has children—though she has protested loudly to each man that she is not engaged to either of them and has no obligations to be exclusive. She likes to worry, this Nurse Nacie.
Her solution to this problem is to start telling Gary and Hal that she’s busy and refusing their dates. This plan backfires, however, when she runs into Hal out with another woman. “Fate had dealt her a cruel blow,” she moans to herself, then puts her head on Hal’s chest while they are dancing and tells him, “You and I are just friends.” When she’s not leading him on, she’s a big tease.
With the boys out of her life, Nacie has little else to do but stir up trouble, largely among the innocent juvenile Wapi population. After she notices that little Johnny Woodchuck has red eyes—he’d just been working on a lathe in shop class with no eye protection from the sawdust, but she doesn’t think for a second that has anything to do with it—she’s like an evil hawk, swooping out to the Wapi school unannounced to inspect the sanitation of the bathrooms and haul poor Johnny out of class to scrutinize his eyes and give him the third degree about whether he’s been following his treatments. She obsessed with the idea that there might be a trachoma “virus” (it’s a bacteria, actually) loose on the reservation, and lo and behold, Johnny actually shows up a few weeks later with actual conjunctivitis, poor kid, and now she is a rabid nightmare, locking up the entire elementary school population in the building and refusing to let them out for 36 hours, until every child has been given a shot of antibiotics and had their eyes washed out with copper sulfate, an apparently painful procedure, as persecuted Johnny is “grimacing as pain hit him” when she repeats the washings the next day—the kids have had to sleep on the floor overnight—before finally letting them all go home. I hope I do not have to tell you that this treatment is ridiculously over the top, even for 1960s standards.
When cold season hits a few weeks later, she’s out there again, inspecting throats in addition to the boys’ bathroom and deciding, “Almost every Wapi student needed his tonsils out.” No wonder Dr. Gary, an ENT specialist, loves her so; it’s thanks to her he can afford that spiffing new Cadillac he’s been driving around town. But before she is able to start forcing the kids into the OR, one of her beaux suffers a “strangulation” hernia, which is going to kill him in another minute or two, but prompt surgical attention—with Nurse Nacie standing in as scrub, of course—saves his life! Now she knows which one she really loves and they can get married!
Inattention to detail is a cardinal sin in my book, as it were, and author Marguerite Nelson leads us down too many blind alleys (Nacie spends a weekend alone in San Diego where she sees two movies and puts down a “masher,” to name just one bizarre extraneous interlude) and creates too many illogical situations (Nacie tends to a Wapi baby who refuses to eat because he is suffering from malnutrition due to too many flies in the house). The writing occasionally tends toward the syrupy, with Nacie giving us a “silvery tinkle” instead of a laugh, her “glistening blonde hair” referenced a few too many times. My favorite gaffe was a very bad transition, when Nacie is kissing Gary after a date, and tells him, “ ‘Good night, Dr. Gary.’ Nacie disrobed swiftly, throwing her clothes over a chair. She lay on her back in the silent apartment, staring at the ceiling.” For a brief, wild moment, I thought we were in for something really interesting, but no such luck. And so, because this book is far more aggravating than enjoyable, I advise you leave this one alone.

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