Saturday, December 14, 2019

The Palm Thatched Hospital

By Juliet Shore, ©1963

Doctor Christina Roberts was on her way to Lake Kampili in Kenya, where she was to join her fiancé. But her careful plans went astray when tropical rains left her stranded on the far side of the Umbulu River—in the company of the devastatingly attractive Doctor Dominic Mount.


“I am at my least successful when in the company of members of the opposite sex. Perhaps during our enforced exile together you can teach me how to be a wow with the ladies.”

“You can’t embark on a career in medicine unless you’re tougher than the rest.”

“Being ‘good friends’ can prove an interesting relationship with no holds barred. You should try it sometime, with somebody.”

Dr. Christina Roberts has a common problem: She’s engaged to an ass. Melvyn is medical director of a nursing home at Lake Kampili in Kenya, “where you deal with the fads and diets of large and lazy women addicted to hypochondria,” so that’s not a good start—but more than that, he has a “tidy, uncluttered, analytical mind” that thinks not at all about anyone but himself. He’s arranged for Christina to spend a year working in pediatrics—to prepare herself for the job of being his wife and mother of his children, no doubt—and then they are to be married, “which would automatically sever her from her brief, so far undistinguished, medical career,” and never mind the money and years of study that went into the making of it. Fortunately for her, however, she missed a boat and was delayed in her voyage from England to Mombasa Island. This led to her getting caught in the winter monsoon, which had arrived two weeks ahead of schedule, the inconsiderate thing, and washed away the Umbulu bridge, so there is no way for her to reach Lake Kampili until the rains stop and the bridge is rebuilt—in several months. Fortunately, on the road where it meets the Umbulu River is a small palm-thatched hospital. Dr. Dominic Mount and his spinster sister Cicely live and work at this hospital, and Dominic offers Christina a job and a home for the months she is stranded, which she gladly accepts. You do not need me to tell you how this story is going to play out. You can probably even predict that a former girlfriend of Dominic’s, Dr. Delia Courtnay, also manages to get herself stuck at the hospital, a clever plan on her part to try to win Dominic back after she’d left him at the altar to chase after another man.

A few surprises do land in our lap, like the fact that Christina clues in early—and dumps early—her loser fiancé. Also a bit unusual is that the star-crossed lovers actually marry halfway through the book, but this is complicated by the fact that Christine contracts malaria on her wedding day and is packed off to Nairobi to recover with Dr. Delia, who pulls in Melvyn to assist in her plan to break up the marriage by making Christina believe that she was too delirious with fever to render her vows anything but null and void.

The stock characters include the bitter spinster made bright by a pep talk from Christina and a boyfriend, the evil vixen who attempts to steal the man but who is eventually thwarted, the domineering (and properly named) doctor Dom, the mousy little woman afraid to speak her mind, and the shiny Fifth Avenuetype MD who caters to rich anxious, bored women. The surprising thing is that this book is nonetheless fairly enjoyable to read—except that it makes little of its location beyond the heat and humidity, the rain, the flowers, and slight hints of the wonderful way Africans have of personifying objects, such as when Christina’s Kenyan guide George points out, “Bridge—bridge, him gone.” We get an odd take on racism here, where individuals such as George and other Kenyan hospital staff are hard-working and intelligent. Indeed, Dominic is praised as “a man who recognized character and achievement in anyone and everyone”—while simultaneously dismissing entire groups of people as “children,” so I’m sending off another check of atonement to the UNCF as my penance for reading racist books. If the plot winds up predictably and the last page with a whimper, you could still do worse than to spend time in the palm-thatched hospital, even if they’ve neglected to include the hyphen in the title.

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