Here is a hospital story with a difference, for it is set on a Burmese island where one white doctor and two nurses, with a native staff, waged a ceaseless war against tropical diseases, parasites and an utterly exhausting climate. Pat found it hard going in any case … but much more so when she fell in love with the doctor whose only feeling for her seemed to be intense irritation.
“Your bed always looks like the aftermath of a dog-fight.”
“Marriage is still a good career, you know. Not so good as nursing, in my opinion—but the next best.”
“It is only the open heart that lets in magic.”
“There’s a lot to be said for having a nitwit for a wife. I married her because she was too dumb to know a tea-plant from a banana. I wouldn’t have her different; keeps me amused and gives me a good opinion of my own mental equipment!”
“You’re cold and composed and very efficient, and I ask for nothing more in any nurse. But on the inside you’re still a bit of a woman, and that’s what it is that gives you headaches.”
What do you do with the racism that is sometimes indigenous in a nurse novel written more than 50 years ago? In the past I have given it a disgusted snort, maybe even tacked up some passages in the Best Quotes section, not because they are best but because they are so ludicrous that they deserve to be ridiculed alongside campy exhortations that the nurse check what she’s done to the patient’s heart rate. But something happened to me as I read White Doctor, a book I expected to blow off with that same sneer. Maybe it’s the climate we’re living in lately, in which national political figures express similar sentiments (and only occasionally in more veiled language), where children are stolen from their families and locked in jails without adequate supervision, much less diapers or food. The distressing racism in these books is not antiquated as I had once naively thought they were, but are violently alive and thriving. I’ve decided that from now on every time I read one of these horrible sentences I will make a donation to an organization that combats racism. I’m starting off with a $100 donation to the Southern Poverty Law Center, and I’m going to have to be careful about which books I read too far out from payday.
The odd thing is that White Doctor is actually a sweet book overall, one that snuck up on me. It opens at a small hospital in what is now Myanmar, where two nurses—our heroine, Patricia Millay, age 22, and veteran RN Lisa Collett, 35—are working alongside Dr. Vincent, who at 50 is on the brink of jungle-induced collapse. He’s being replaced by Dr. Mark Bradlaw, a 34-year-old bachelor, who blows in like a thunderstorm, all full of fire and shouting.
Pat is barely out of her student days but applied for an overseas position in an attempt to outrun the heartache of being dumped after a year of dating by a young MD who out of the blue told her he was engaged to marry a woman he’d met on vacation a few months prior. “And here she was, after three months, studentship quickly forgotten because she had been accepted as assistant to Nurse Collett, and they were the only two white women in Molang.” She and Dr. Mark immediately get off on the wrong foot when he scolds her for being too friendly with one of the two white patients they have, a young man who was temporarily blinded by an explosion. After that, the two spar fairly regularly, if they do have some occasional friendly chats in his quarters. “She gave me back almost as good as she got, so I piped down,” the doctor recalls his and Pat’s early days together to a friend.
Soon Lisa starts with a cough, and then rapidly starts to dwindle in the best Ali MacGraw tradition. We should not be surprised, because after eight years in the tropics she is “ravaged.” But Pat suspects there’s something else underneath it, and as her feelings toward Mark inexplicably sweeten, she thinks she knows why. She tells Mark that Lisa is in love with Dr. Vincent and is pining away now that he’s returned to England. As Lisa’s case looks increasingly hopeless, Dr. Vincent turns up and installs himself at Lisa’s bedside, determined to make her well and take her back to England as his bride. At the same time, an old girlfriend of Mark’s, Fane Dering Ernston, turns up. She had been a nurse who had dumped Mark to marry a wealthy patient who had promptly died, and now she wants her old beau back. Because they are so short-staffed with Lisa being ill, Mark hires her, and now Pat becomes more depressed, torn as she is by jealousy.
It’s not hard to see where this book is headed, but overall it meanders there in a gentle, sweet fashion. Most of the book is spent following Pat around the countryside as she visits friends, and if not consequential or brilliantly written, the book is pleasant and enjoyable. The biggest problem I had with it—apart from the endemic condescension toward the local folk—is that I never got over my initial dislike of the blustering, domineering Mark, who continues to be rather mean all the way through; on page 163 we are told, “However kind his tone there was hostility somewhere underneath it, even today.” This is a common problem with VNRNs that initially present the love interest as a jerk and then have the heroine slowly warm to him; seldom is the writer skilled enough to illustrate a plausible change in the man’s character or misunderstanding of it by the woman. I didn’t like him at the start, and hadn’t changed my mind at the book’s end. We are told that Mark’s ongoing meanness to Pat stems from his own jealousy of her, but how are we supposed to get past the fact that he has never been nice? Apart from this, however, White Doctor is surprisingly worth reading.