Saturday, September 7, 2019

Wrong Doctor John

By Kate Starr, ©1966

It could have been very confusing to have two members of the staff at the Eye Clinic with the same name—John Hardin; one a doctor, the other a surgeon. But Nurse Emma Brown at least had no difficulty in choosing between them.


“To be really on your toes you needed setbacks.”

“Knowledge is a good thing. It should help you graduate.”

The premise of this book is that there are two doctors named John Harding, both of whom work at the dilapidated, overrun eye clinic. “Don’t let its squalor deceive you; only on the outside is Eye Clinic an eyesore,” the senior nurse tells a flock of fledgling nurses, which includes our heroine, Emma Brown. For on the inside, the eye clinic offers the best care for eye diseases in Australia. This Emma quickly discovers after she is sent—to her horror—to work at the eye clinic, because the great senior John Harding, looking out the window after a difficult night, sees Emma, also just off her night shift, running across the lawn, her red hair flying, and asks that she be transferred to his clinic. Creepy as that is, off she goes, and upon arrival she cannot even get into the building, it is so full of people. Eventually she elbows her way in and stumbles around for a while, usually directed by the helpful patients who know the confusing maze of hallways a lot better than she does, until she’s put to work sorting patients, who must sit in rows according to who’s next. “Emma, frustrated, feeling that her two and a half years of training, a good part of it most uplifting and impressive, had prepared her for something better than the collecting of tickets, shot Sister Morrow an indignant look.” It’s a humorous scene, in which she is forced to bully the knitters and chatters and the deaf Mr. Al Croker into order. Then she moves on to eye exercises, made more challenging by young Malcolm, an eye clinic veteran who always pretends that his eyes have gotten stuck in the crossed position until Emma pinches him back to normal.

On her first day she meets young John Harding—called Dr. John, compared to the senior Mr. John, a convention you will understand if you’ve read a few Harlequin (i.e. British) VNRNs; senior MDs in the UK are called Mister. Young Dr. John calls her Blackie because of her black stockings—a bit of a joke since her last name is Brown and most people call her Brownie—and she calls him, mostly to herself, wrong Dr. John, because as soon as she meets Mr. (senior) John Harding she is smitten with the great man.

The old clinic is to be abandoned soon because a new modern clinic is being built nearby. Senior/Right Mr. John takes her on a tour of the new facility, interested as he is in this bright, light, lively creature. On the tour, however, she discovers that “something was very wrong” with Mr. Harding. As the book trots along, we hear a lot about Mr. John’s sadness, about “something in the great man that grieved her because it grieved him.” It seems to involve a very beautiful woman named Kristin who hangs around the clinic, lecture halls, anywhere Mr. John might turn up, so she can turn her tear-filled  gaze upon him.

Meanwhile, Emma develops a chummy friendship with Dr. John, who is always teasing her but also on occasion sincere as he earnestly learns all he can from the great doctor, assisting in surgery: “Well—I’ll at least hand something,” he hopes of his first day as surgical assist. The pair skewer each other amusingly, as well as pick each other up, and in the end, they head into the outback as a mobile clinic to treat Maori people without other access to medical care.

You can guess where at least one of these threads is headed, but it really doesn’t matter—this rollicking, enjoyable book has a marvelous sense of humor and some lovely writing; it had me at the first sentence. “It was a postcard sort of morning, a fresh, bright morning that brings wholeness and sanity flooding reassuringly back to a slightly threadbare, rather crazy world.” With writing this good you needn’t worry so much about plotting, though this book’s story moves along nicely. Emma is a feisty gal who, if brought into the eye clinic on a creepy whim, never deserves it, always standing on her own two feet and refusing to be a patsy even to Mr. John. If she does suffer from a clearly foolish crush on Mr. John, she always has Dr. John to ridicule her for it, and we all know how a hopeless crush feels; the characters are so well drawn that we can empathize with their foibles rather than sneer. So in the end, if Dr. John was wrong, this book is absolutely right.

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