Saturday, January 11, 2020

Peace Corps Nurse

By George Sullivan, ©1964


Right out of the gate I have to tell you that this not a nurse novel at all, and is badly advertised on other counts as well. First of all, heroine Judy Jones, an 18-year-old high school graduate, is no nurse, just an occasional volunteer at the hospital. Secondly, she never even gets to the Peace Corps, but instead is followed during her ten-week training course in Arizona. Third, though the adverts tell us “it is already being acclaimed as one of the most popular romantic novels of the season!” Judy does not even have a boyfriend. Too many similarities to the other Peace Corps Nurse, the main difference being that this book is much worse.

Judy Jones is an immature twit, probably not helped in this regard by the fact that this book was written by a man. As her plane is about to land in Arizona, “Judy greeted the arrival announcement in typically feminine fashion. She reached into her handbag on the seat beside her and took out her mirror and comb. After a few strokes through her short black hair, she smoothed on a little lipstick. Her confidence restored, she tightened her seat belt.” If confidence came in a twist-up tube, women would rule the world. But if this were the extent of Judy’s insipid nature we would be lucky; instead we are treated to her shrieks and childish behavior in class again and again, not to mention her patronizing attitude toward the people of Colombia, whom she is intending to grace with her ignorant suburban attitudes. She daydreams about wearing a serape in Colombia: “The villagers were clustered in front of their poor hovels and as she walked along she imagined them saying to one another, ‘Look at the Peace Corps lady; she dresses just like we do. She is so wonderful; we love her so.’” Excuse me while I go throw up.

She is fortunate to have a chance to patronize a small community of Indians living in Mexico as part of her training when she spends a week there. These impoverished folks need to be “taught” to drink milk, although any moron should realize the problem would stem from being too poor to own or raise an animal that produces milk, not ignorance of its benefits. Judy shows up with boxes of powdered milk and foists it on the friendly but bewildered Indians, and when one woman tries to feed the powder to her baby, Judy responds with understanding and calm: “She was so stunned she could hardly speak. ‘Wait! Wait!’ she screeched, completely forgetting that she must use Spanish. Judy’s screams so frightened the woman that she dropped the carton and the spoon and scurried to the other side of the room.” On the following page Judy “gasped in horror” as the mom tests the temperature of the now-mixed powdered milk by sucking on the bottle herself. “She thought every mother in the world knew how to test the temperature of a baby’s bottle by sprinkling a few drops of milk on the inside of the wrist. Everyone knew that—didn’t they?” Judy is going to be awesome in Colombia.

When Judy and her partner show up at the village with an armful of buckets and mops, intending to teach the women to keep a cleaner house, they are horrified that the women “greeted their plans with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm,” not that I blame them one whit. After a day trying to get Maria’s husband to carry water down from the mountain stream for them—“and then he only did it reluctantly!”—and to get the kids to stop using the mops as pretend horses and the women down on their knees and scrub floors, Judy is so upset that she “exploded” at her partner, “Don’t they realize that all we want to do is help them?” But don’t worry, by the end of her week in Mexico, Judy “was being hailed as the village heroine” because she’s taught the village women to make apple pies of fruit the community had previously allowed to drop and rot, which seems highly unrealistic when the village is described as near starving. At the send-off party the Indians throw for Judy and her partner, Judy “basked in the friendly warmth of the Indians’ affection for them,” which if true demonstrates that the Mexicans have far better souls than Judy. As a parting gift to the villagers, Judy gives the women bottle brushes and the men corn-cob pipes to “serve as models should the men care to carve some for sale.” On her way home she “absently fingered the stones of her shining bracelet,” a gift the villagers have made and given to her, not for one second considering that this might be a far more logical and lucrative economic opportunity than corn cob pipes. 

When not shrieking at spiders or ignorance borne of poverty, Judy is prancing with joy over an impending trip to the bowling alley, pouting silently, speaking petulantly, stomping off to her room, hanging her head sullenly, disrupting class when she freaks out because she can’t understand the conversation in Spanish class, and repetitively moaning, “What shall we do? What shall we do?” when confronted with a new situation, not that she’s likely to meet any as a leader in a foreign country. In short, Judy is the very model of everything one does not want in a Peace Corps volunteer. We can only be relieved in the end when Judy is not offered a place in Colombia because she needs another year to “mature,” which a serious underestimation of what it will take to transform Judy into a responsible adult. Upon hearing the news, Judy is convinced that “the Peace Corps bore a childish prejudice against her,” only proving the point. The shame is that the Peace Corps offers her a job recruiting young people to the Peace Corps, so she can infect more recruits with her patronizing attitude.

Curiously, the author of this book is held up as a champion of the Peace Corps, having written the nonfiction Story of the Peace Corps, “which has an official introduction by R. Sargent Shriver,” the first Peace Corps director. What he has written here is a horror story of racist white middle class entitlement run amok, giving us a heroine who can engender nothing but alarm in the reader that this is the kind of shallow, ignorant person the Peace Corps is recruiting. It’s not. My parents were Peace Corps volunteers in Nigeria from 19646, where they taught high school. A book that should be an homage to the dedication and hard work of honest, true community is instead a knife in the back. The best thing about this book is the cover, which is an absolute gem. And maybe the fact that continuing the pledge I made after reading White Doctor, after reading this disturbing novel, I’m doing penance by donating to the American Indian College Fund.

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