“Stick to your own world, you’ll never last here,” handsome, young Dr. Chastain told Nurse Holly on her first day at Mission Hospital. Holly had left a luxurious world as private nurse to wealthy patients to work among the city’s poor, but Dr. Chastain, in charge of Mission Hospital, was not impressed. He seemed to go out of his way to be unpleasant to Holly and made it plain he disliked her and her “charity.” Holly couldn’t understand why she wanted his approval so much. Didn’t she have wealthy Murray Howard in love with her? She couldn’t care for two men at the same time—or could she?
“He’s a swell guy and a caution with them knives and scalpels of his.”
“I admire the skill and the competence of luxury doctors. I also admire the nerve with which they present exorbitant bills for minor services.”
“Doctors and interns are too busy with their professions and careers to think about marriage.”
“I never thought I’d see the day when I’d find a girl who could look even lovelier in a formal dress than in a nurse’s uniform. There’s something about those starchy, rustly white outfits that make a fellow feel that all’s going to be right with the world as soon as the nurse puts a cool hand on his fevered brow.”
Nurse Hollace Lowman is a 22-year-old nurse in search of a man. “I’m going to fall in love one of these days, for keeps, and I’m going to get married for life, and have a home. That’s what I’ve wanted more than anything else in the world,” she says. This obsession stems not only from the mores of the age but from the fact that she is a “half-orphan”—her mother died and her father took off for parts unknown, leaving her to be raised in foster homes. But don’t feel sorry for her; she’s no Oliver Twist! “I was well cared for and sent to school just like anybody else,” she declares. And now she’s a vagabond living in a hotel with a box containing all her worldly possessions; so much for her deep connections with her foster parents.
At least, though, she cares for patients well-to-do enough to keep her in the finest mansions and summer homes while she’s ministering to their health needs. Again, though, the author wants to put the usual trope on its ear, as when Hollace is accused of pampering “the imagined ills of hypochondriacs,” she defends her rich clientele with vigor, saying, “a great many of them are seriously ill. They have operations from which their recovery is slow and sometimes painful; they have accidents.”
To wit, when we meet Hollace, she is just putting the finishing touches on the recovery of wealthy Paige Randolph, who is four weeks out from an appendectomy that nearly killed her—hard to believe that’s true, but this is fiction, after all—and is still not yet allowed to drive her own car. On their way home from the country farm where Paige has been convalescing, they drop by Mission Hospital, which the snobbish, shallow Paige has most uncharacteristically adopted as her pet charity project; indeed, many times in the book she is credited as being the only reason the hospital is still in business. But it’s not the hospital or the “horrible people … not really human beings” that Paige really cares about. “If you could see the way they live, the utter squalor! They are animals,” she says of the patients. Rather it’s the tall, cool drink of water that is Dr. Elliot Chastain she has her eyes on, though he is giving mixed signals. We hear that his eyes light up when she comes by, but his speech to her is sarcastic and indulgent, not exactly signs of true love.
When Paige and Hollace pull up to the front door, they find Miss Sara Ballard, 80-year-old resident RN, wracked with pain from a cancer that she won’t get treated because then there would be no nurse at the hospital—obviously missing the point that if she’s out a month for cancer treatment that’s less than she’ll be out if she dies from it. Hollace is instantly smitten with Miss Sara and volunteers not only to come work for the clinic but to do it for free and to pay for things the patients need out of her own pocket. In short, Hollace is a patsy, and proves it by wandering outside one night after she’s moved into the hospital and being dragged at knifepoint to the drug cabinet so she can get her new friend some opioids. Fortunately Dr. Chastain interrupts the interview and the gentleman caller is hauled off to the clink.
All this cements Dr. Chastain’s opinion of Hollace as a soft, lazy babe in the woods with an immorally cushy job. “I’m a nurse, not a glamour gal,” Hollace spits, and actually gets into a pretty feisty row with Dr. Chastain the likes of which I’ve not seen in a Peggy Gaddis novel, where the ladies usually just roll over for their lord and master, the MD. But of course the pair starts off the book throwing lots of verbal knives at each other, until page 48, when Dr. Chastain kisses her. “My goodness gracious!” she thinks later. “Why, I liked having him hold me! I liked having him kiss me! I’m not sure I didn’t kiss him back! Oh, how could I have?”
Before long, Hollace has attracted the attention of worthless playboy Murray Howard, who had previously devoted himself to Paige. That spurned woman is now furiously jealous of Hollace, though she continues to profess no interest in Murray. Eventually Murray proposes to Hollace, but she by that point knows she is in love with Dr. Chastain and gently turns him down. Eventually Paige wins the battle by bringing Miss Sara back from her convalescence, so now Hollace is out of a job and goes trudging reluctantly back to the penthouses of her former patients. But now “she grew very weary of their constant absorption in their own concerns. Neurotics, all of them, she told herself distastefully.”
Not to worry, though: Another VNRN trope in the form of a huge fire sweeps through the slums, and Hollace drops her self-absorbed, neurotic patient on the eiderdown counterpane and sprints back to the hospital. She works tirelessly for countless hours, and when the fire is out and all the burned patients are swathed in bandages and tucked in bed, she announces she’s coming back to work there permanently! Then the news trickles in that the townspeople are so ashamed that there was a slum in town, which somehow they have been completely unaware of until now, that they are rebuilding it and will charge no rent for the houses there and are building a toy factory where all the poor slobs can work to boot! On the last page, Hollace has a big blowout with Dr. Chastain and tells him she’s in love with him, and then it’s just half a page more before we can close the book.
This book of Peggy Gaddis’, here writing as Georgia Craig, that seems like it set out to reinvent some of the old standards, like the unhappy orphan, the undeserved rich patients (though it changes its mind at the end), the heroine who can’t say how she feels, even the degree of defiance the nurse demonstrates toward the doctor, as Gaddis usually loves to have a heroine scrappy of speech but wilting of action—which even Hollace can’t completely avoid when she says, “I’ve come home at last, because wherever you are is always going to be home for me.” But we’ve also got plenty of the usual suspects: the initial antagonism between the future lovebirds, the slums reborn, the much beloved elderly woman (a major staple in Gaddis novels, although here Miss Sara seems more imperious than lovable, and has an awkward habit of constantly referring to the slum’s residents as “my people” as if she were a queen). A few minor flaws include the fact that the work Hollace does at Mission Hospital is never described, nor are we told why it becomes so compelling to her. And Paige’s longstanding and time-consuming interest in the hospital is completely outside of her flitting, superficial character. But Gaddis can be a very good writer (except when her carefree—usually rich—women are “caroling” instead of speaking), and overall the book’s differences from the usual fare make it worth reading.