Saturday, June 13, 2020

Nurse of the Crossroads

Colleen L. Reece, ©1977

The assignment that reporter Sam Reynolds had been given seemed easy enough: find out about Dr. David Mackenzie; find out what gave him his own special brand of faith. And so Sam left Portland for the small towns around LaGrande, to discover new people and a way of life he had never known existed. Lovely Amber Mackenzie, a nurse, had been alone since her father’s death. But she was carrying on with the work he had  begun—the small Crossroads Clinic was still open; Amber still journeyed into the canyons and mountains to help people in need. Amber’s gentle ways earned her the love of all who knew her and believed in her father’s ideals, and Sam quickly fell under her spell. Sam’s assignment to learn about Dr. Mackenzie turned into something more, as the young man decided to learn about himself, too. And Sam’s presence caused Amber some serious thinking, also. Although she had known and loved Dr. Robert Meacham for years, she felt unsure of herself, unready for marriage. Perhaps with Sam …


“What chance had she, Amber, against such a doll-like creature?”

“Woman, I won’t rest until you’re my meek, obedient, humble bride.”

“While Robert is marrying a nurse, I think he probably also hopes he’s marrying a woman, not a machine.”

The story begins from the point of cynical newspaper reporter Sam Reynolds, who was “raised in a poor family, clawing his way out of the slums.” His editor, Don Baker, who—get this—lives in a mansion (no newspaper editor outside of a major city could possibly afford a mansion these days, and in fact might qualify for food stamps)—is obsessed with now-deceased college chum David Mackenzie, who quit his superlative career at Portland Memorial to take up the life of a rural GP in eastern Oregon. Don is yearning for deeper meaning, and thinks David had found it: He “stood without wavering for what he believed. I’ve got to know whether David’s beliefs were real!” He fears David actually resigned to head off a big scandal, but he “must know what it was that kept David Mackenzie going.”

So he sends Sam on a spiritual cum journalistic quest. Sam heads east, making a beeline for David’s gravestone, which states that David had  “accepted the Crossroads Calling.” This Calling is painted as a mystical quest, for some reason, and Sam, and many other characters in the book, pursues it for the duration. After a stop at the cemetery, Sam meets David’s daughter Amber, who is a nurse and continues the work of the Crossroads Clinic. The story shifts mostly to her point of view, and she develops a crush on Sam, while gently resisting VNRN staple doctor-who-loves-nurse-but-isn’t-loved-in-return Robert Meacham. We spend a lot of time on this old saw, and visiting Amber’s patients, and various adventures including the time Amber catches the 14-year-old boy who’s broken into the drug cabinet to steal—aspirin! Tee hee!

The worst part about this book is how it hangs most of its raison d’être on the mystery of David Mackenzie—which Amber spills 100 pages before the end, ending the suspense much too early—namely that David Mackenzie had unknowingly sent a drunk intern to care for a seriously injured burn victim and, checking later, had found the intern passed out in a chair and the patient dead. The patient would have died anyway, we’re told, but Dr. Mackenzie covered for the intern and resigned, though the resignation is completely unjustified, as if every doctor resigned after the expected death of a patient, no one would be practicing medicine. The intern goes on to become a very successful and famous doctor, and Dr. Mackenzie slinks off to LaGrande to practice in his humble clinic.

Somehow all this is supposed to make Dr. Mackenzie even more of a saint, but to me needlessly falling on his sword just makes him look like a self-absorbed, sanctimonious jerk. Even worse, we’re given a lame poem he’d written—again and again this poem is quoted—in which the narrator chose a path at a crossroads that leads away from fame and fortune but toward “the right way, to happiness … and God.” The ostensible point being that you should do whatever you can to help other people. It’s a reasonable point, though it’s not clear why a famous and successful doctor is not helping people; rather you have an opportunity to help more people if you have a wider reach. Furthermore, it’s not clear why this philosophy translates into a religion, and why this makes Dr. Mackenzie so much saintlier than everyone else for having followed it, when others, including his daughter and Dr. Meacham, have done the same.

The issue is not smoothed when every time a character encounters some dilemma, we are told that they are “facing [their] own crossroads calling,” although most of the time these decisions are over something completely inappropriate such as searching for Amber when she disappears in a snowstorm, or helping “evil” Vagabond Vic when he becomes sick. Worst of all, when Amber decides she’s really in love with Robert after all, and he comes to show her an engagement ring she mistakenly believes is someone else’s, instead of being honest with him about her feelings—“I’m not the type to throw myself at a man, no matter how much life hurts without him”—she is nasty and mean, and the pair barely speak for four months after that. The fact that she severely bungled her “calling” in this instance is never pointed out, and after she discovers the ring was actually means for her, “again Amber stood at a crossroads,” and again she fails to tell Robert how she feels, only that she thought the ring was for someone else, leaving it for him to do the heavy lifting and propose, with no hint from her that she’s changed her mind about her feelings for him.

So everyone in the book is, by its long overdue end, touched by the glorifying Crossroads Calling and has a true religious fervor in their heart, but none of it hangs together. All this religious devotion is whipped up out of a basic desire to do the most good one can, but this is not a particularly unique or even Christian (Ghandi, anyone?) principle. The characters talk a lot, but their spiritual awakenings are told to us, not shown, so they don’t feel sincere, and frankly apart from Amber, no one really does a lot of good, either (Sam writes an inspirational book and editor Sam Baker gives up his job in Portland to start a small paper in LaGrande, and little Billy Carter wins over a savage killer dog named Satan just by believing he won’t get his face ripped off). Amber, the main character shows no growth during this story; Sam seems to have, but we are told this, and his character essentially slinks off to a remote cabin to write his book halfway through, and is seldom seen again. This book wants to be inspirational, but it just ends up being insipid and boring.

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