By Peggy Gaddis ©1964
Celia Chalmers was used to conquering men. And Jennie saw the look in her eyes when she met Johnnie Ottwell. It made her wonder if she had been foolish to postpone her marriage to Johnnie. He was a struggling schoolteacher. And she had vowed to help him save for their future. But Celia Chalmers knew how to use her beauty as a weapon to get what she wanted. And now she wanted the man who belonged to Nurse Jennie.
“Who was she, Jennie Cosgrove, with her cherished cap and pin still a beautiful novelty, to object to any orders given her by one of those lordly beings, a doctor?”
“I’m a heel to wish that you were as rich as you are beautiful. I’d do the caveman bit—throw you over my shoulder and lug you off screaming!”
“I’d rather be an irritant to a girl than somebody she just looks at and forgets.”
“I do declare, I cannot get over the fool things city folks will do when they are in the Glades, knowing as they must that the place swarms with poisonous snakes and alligators and mean-natured beasts. They just go blundering around as if they were mowing the lawn in their own back yard.”
“When you are in love you will know that one man, and one man alone, spells the fulfillment of all your dreams, hopes and aspirations.”
“Scruples? I don’t burden myself with anything so silly.”
Author Peggy Gaddis must have been in a crabby mood in the four hours it took her to churn out this throwaway novel: Characters have the inexplicable habit of flying off the handle at the slightest provocation. Even Gaddis’ usually saintly mother character here gets all peevish when she is offered money for some jam she presents to a guest, snapping sharply at the hapless young woman and making her “flushed and uncomfortable.” The next second Mom “suddenly smiled a warm, friendly smile that wiped out any hint of the momentary resentment she had felt. ‘And I certainly hope you’re going to be a friend of mind and that you will come out again.’” No thanks!
Just like her mother, Nurse Jennie Cosgrove is also prone to being cold and snippy, such as to the rich patient’s handsome chauffeur, a seemingly friendly man who offers to take her to dinner, or to the patient’s daughter, who offers to drive her home and innocently remarks that Jennie’s family of eight might be a bit much taken en masse: “Put down that gun, pal!” Celia Chalmers drawls when Jennie comes at her all ablaze. But when Jennie is in the arms of her intended, Johnnie Ottwell, you’ll definitely need a slug of Pepto-Bismol to tame that tummy upset from too much sugar: “He and Jennie were looking at each other as though they would never tire of it,” and then he “drew Jennie close, entirely oblivious to the others, and kissed her, a long, ardent, satisfying kiss ... Jennie was starry-eyed when she got into the car.”
The lovestruck pair are not planning on getting married until after Johnnie finishes his PhD, which appears to be years in the future, since he works full-time as a teacher, and then there’s the little snag of how they will live together: She works in town, and his job, which he has no intention of ever giving up, keeps him in the heartest heart of the Everglades. You do have to wonder why he’s bothering with the PhD at all, actually.
The problem arises when Celia meets Johnnie and is instantly smitten with the heartthrob. Oblivious Jennie suggests that he take Celia on a tour of the Everglades in his “swamp buggy,” and while they are out, Celia’s conversation—apparently intended to win Johnny over—only proves that the two are completely unsuitable for each other. Johnny explains that he teaches English as a second language to the children of migrant Mexican farm workers, and his attitude is actually quite enlightened for the times: “They must be educated so that eventually they can climb above their parents’ present place in the world and be something more than migrant farm workers. Education is the only answer to the problem of the migrant farm worker, not only here in the Glades but all over the country.” “Sounds pretty dull,” cracks vixen Celia. She digs her hole deeper when she adds, “It seems a shame for a man like you to be wasted on a job like this.” Given this triumphant beginning, it is only natural that Celia should think Johnnie is “everything any same girl could possibly hope to find in the man she wants to snag for herself.” It must be his hot bod; I cannot otherwise explain it. But needless to say, Johnnie is not overly impressed.
Back at the ranch, in a remarkable conversation Celia tells Jennie that since she and Johnnie have not yet set a wedding date, “it looks to me very much as though Johnny were available to any girl who really meant to have him!” and tells Jennie that she plans to pursue Johnny. “Then I am afraid if that is what you want, you will probably win,” Jennie answers. “You are a novelty, new, beautiful, and you can probably sweep him off his feet without have to trying!” It’s a novel attitude about your relationship with your fiancé, I’ll say that much.
To put the deal across, Celia, perhaps realizing she’s blown the interview, tells Johnnie that he should break up with Jennie so Jennie can hook up with Dr. Mark Foreman, a handsome young resident who is clearly smitten with her. It seems Jennie is dating Mark regularly, and frankly we do agree that Mark is the better choice—certainly the more typical pick for a VNRN—but in fact we barely see poor Mark again, except one memorable scene in which Jennie tries to set up Mark with Celia and, when he asks her “just why you are shoving me off on Celia Chalmers,” she “stared at him, completely outraged,” and shrieks, “You must be out of your mind. What possible interest could I have in trying to shove you off on Celia?” when, of course, it’s clear that had been her exact intention, to try to divert Celia away from Johnnie and, at the same time, Mark away from herself.
The book takes a bizarre detour through the life of Celia, who has been adopted by a couple at the man’s request, and the “mother” has never cared for Celia at all. The marriage is not a happy one, and the pair snipe and spar through most of their scenes, but in the end, the husband, who has been on the brink of divorce the entire story, decides he’s going to stay with the horrible woman. Furthermore, he agrees to a lopsided and baffling trade: She will give up her current lover, and he will pack Celia off to college, essentially kicking out of the house for good the one person who dearly loves him. Another strange side story is the friendship of two older women who are patients of Jennie’s, one of whom is a pinched, angry woman who does not deserve the kindness of her wealthy and generous hospital roommate.
The story comes to an abrupt end when Jennie is offered a job in the Everglades at a clinic that caters to the local Seminole population—the doctor is in search of a nurse who is known to the Indians so they will learn to trust him—which means she will be living near Johnnie and they can get married. But there’s one hitch: Upon hearing of this turn of events, Johnnie snaps, “I will not be supported by my wife.” This does not mean that Jennie can’t have a job, but rather that her income will be set aside to pay for their children’s college educations. Once this little hiccup in their plans is smoothed over, “all about them the jungle seemed to stir and whisper as though the very palms themselves and the unseen animals that looked in the undergrowth were joining in the song that was filling both their hearts.” Time for another slug of antacid.
Peggy Gaddis can write some good books, but this is not one; it’s a perfunctory story that lurches around like drunks in a van. The characters are a mercurial, moody, disturbed lot, not one of them worth the ink. The most interesting part of the book is its approach to teaching English as a second language and education for migrant children, and that is sadly brief. It offers a mixed bag toward the Indians; on one hand, Celia—honest to God—greets an Indian shopkeeper by saying “How!” and “lifted her hand in what she had long ago been taught was the proper greeting to an Indian.” But the shopkeeper just snickers and answers, “Haven’t you heard? We all speak English now.” Whenever we meet Indians in the book, they are seen through Celia’s bigoted eyes (“Celia stared at them, and suddenly realized that they were Indians!”), even if the Indian characters do have the last laugh, and “turned away as though he had found her unworthy of his scrutiny.” So it’s another donation for the American Indian College Fund, and another book I can’t recommend, though you might want to check out a Peggy Gaddis novel that might vaguely pass for a sequel, County Nurse—you really can’t beat a monster running loose in the swamp!