By Peggy Gaddis, ©1963
The nurses in the Emergency Ward were always busy. And one of the busiest was Nurse Elaine Prescott. Two doctors called for her … after working hours as well as during them. When Dr. Toby Latimer even glanced at her, her pulse did flip-flops. How odd, then, that she should be so impatient for her next date with Dr. Jay Dillard. His kind of attractiveness spelled danger … a danger she didn’t want to think about … yet …
“I’ve never seen her in anything except operating garb. And you know what that is! Liz Taylor would look like a hag in one of those sickening green gowns and masks.”
“I knew how much it would mean to him to look at something young and pretty. Miss Simmons and the other nurses on this ward are definitely not either!”
“Since I’ve been here, and especially since my service in Emergency, I’ve come to believe that the automobile is far more deadly than the atom bomb!”
“‘It’s a dance sensation called “the twist,”’ he explained
kindly. ‘Care to try it?’
“‘I do not!’ Elaine assured him firmly. ‘I have much too much respect for my sacroiliac! Nobody over eighteen should ever attempt that sort of dance, that is, if it is a dance, which I doubt. It looks like something dreamed up in a nightmare.’”
“If I felt any better I’d have to take something for it.”
“Parents sometimes take a whole lot of understanding, don’t they?”
“Any little thing I can ever do for you, or even any big thing like murder or arson, just let me know and consider it done.”
Elaine Prescott is a nurse in an Emergency Department where every patient is brought in on the edge of death, usually from a car crash; unfortunately, the patients seems to have a mortality rate of more than 50 percent. Maybe because the staff thinks it’s a good thing when patients are thrown from car crashes, they dig out bullets and suture bullet wounds, and persuade dying patients to have surgeries that won’t cure them. Has medicine changed that much, or do VNRN authors not bother to do their homework?
When she’s not assisting at malpractice, Elaine is usually arguing with Dr Jay Dillard or Dr. Toby Latimer. Toby is the son of a very wealthy society doctor, Fergus Latimer who, paradoxically to how these kinds of MDs are usually portrayed, is an extremely talented surgeon. Dr. Fergus holds lavish parties that his dowdy wife Ellen avoids like the plague; she prefers to volunteer in the pediatric ward or putter in the garden. Everyone assumes Toby is going to step into his father’s practice, though Toby has never made it a secret that he plans to use his trust fund to open a clinic in the slums. Dr. Fergus is very dismissive of Elaine when she attends a party at the country club with Toby and has tea with Ellen at the family manse; Ellen, for her part, tells Elaine in the kindest possible way not to get involved with Toby because Fergus is going to change Toby’s mind about both the clinic and Elaine, and then she’ll be hurt. Elaine is outraged that Ellen thinks she is “pursuing” Toby, but then Ellen “clarifies” that rather she knows Elaine is not in love with Toby, but that he is in love with her and “I didn’t want to see you hurt” by marring a man she doesn’t love.
Elaine responds to this by accusing Ellen of child abuse: “You have bullied him and hectored him and laughed at his plans and his hopes,” she says—though when we meet Ellen earlier, we are told that “it was obvious that Mrs. Latimer hadn’t the faintest doubt of her son’s ability,” and Ellen herself says, “I think Toby is quite old enough and intelligent enough to make his own decision” about going into practice with his father. After this contradiction, Elaine adds another: “I’m not the least bit in love with Toby, nor do I think for an instant that he is in love with me.” We doubt Elaine is as impassive as all that, as on their first date “Elaine’s happy heart gave a little excited skip at the implication that this was not to be their only date.” As for Toby’s feelings, on numerous occasions Elaine is assured by the people around her that Toby is in love with her, and Toby himself has told his father that he’d like to marry Elaine “more than anything in the world.” This could be the classic VNRN denial of the obvious—a classic tactic for Peggy Gaddis—but it’s hard to know what to do with this; either the heroine is disingenuous at best or completely schizophrenic, and neither is very conducive to a happy love life, or a good story line.
As for Elaine’s other beau, Jay Latimer is planning to step into his father’s practice—but that’s OK, because his father is a general practitioner in the North Georgia mountains. Whenever this particular geography is aligned with a character in a Gaddis novel, you know that’s who we’ll be with on the final pages. But in virtually every exchange, Jay and Elaine are squabbling, usually because Jay has made some disparaging remark about Toby, and Elaine is defending him.
In between Elaine’s battles with Jay and Toby’s parents, both of whom are doing their best to keep Elaine and Toby apart—again, rather perplexing, since Toby’s mother is initially painted as a doting, underappreciated saint—a 15-year-old girl who has been groomed to be lonely by her social-climbing parents and who was almost the victim of half a suicide pact (her boyfriend shot her in the lung and then chickened out on killing himself and ran, which ends their relationship) and her story resolves happily after she delivers a lengthy and astoundingly psychologically insightful lecture to her parents about their failings. We also have the more bizarre story of a 32-year-old widow who has conjured her dead husband’s ghost, whom numerous people hear speaking to her and who drives her car, and her, into a tree. Her story also ends “happily,” we are told, when she dies: “I’m so glad she didn’t have to go on living without her husband,” says the wise 15-year-old. “She loved him so very much, and she was so alone without him.” Curiously, these two stories contradict each other—although, come to think of it, given that this is a Gaddis story, it’s not curious at all—one young woman is lucky to have lived and lost her boyfriend, while the other is lucky to have died after losing her husband.
This is the problem with Peggy Gaddis. She starts writing one story that is abruptly flipped on its head, and we are told with a straight face that everything we’ve been led to believe up to this point is false, and the opposite has been emphatically true all along. A young woman who is outraged when she is thought to be chasing one man suddenly openly pursues another with gusto; a man and a lifestyle she’s been chilly toward from book’s open, we now find she’s been “pursuing like mad ever since we first met!” When did that happen exactly?
One of the more interesting aspects of this book is that it holds an amazing prejudice toward both upper and lower classes. After her evening at the country club Elaine says, “There didn’t seem to be a serious idea among the crowd! I can’t imagine anything duller or more boring than a steady diet of such dates; or the sort of life those people live. They all looked bored and dissatisfied with themselves and the world at large.” At the same time, Toby endures an inordinate amount of disdain from his peers—Jay Latimer in particular—despite the fact that he’s an extraordinarily dedicated and hard-working doctor, because his father is a rich man. But being poor is not much better, at least being urban poor: Characters talk of the “savage brutality in the slum areas” that “springs from ignorance as much as from native brutality: people can be taught to rise above such animal-like things”—and that’s from Ellen Latimer, who has the kindly view. Dr. Fergus Latimer just calls the slum-dwellers “lazy, ignorant and shiftless, who are unwilling to lift a finger to help themselves and rush to grab anything the city or the state or the government hands out.” Curious contrast to the mountain-dwelling poor, who are painted as a holy, hard-working, noble species.
For the most part it’s a well-written story, though even urban nursing students tend toward cutesy epithets such as “Saints preserve us and forevermore!” and “Praises be!” and “For the love of Florence Nightingale.” There’s enough bizarreness in the side plots to be entertaining—what is up with the ghost???—and the contradictions of the plots are not especially irritating, partly because instead of turning into a vapid, spineless wimp who does what her man tells her, which happens too frequently in Gaddis novels, rather the opposite is true. Elaine, who shows little interest in any man for much of the book after her first and only date with Toby, in the end puts her feelings on the line—up to a point. “I’ve gone so far as I intend to go! After all, this is supposed to be partly your job, you know. You really shouldn’t expect me to drop on my knees and put my hand on my turbulent heart and beg for your hand in marriage!”—and by saying this, she is making it clear that she would like it if he did the same. The good news is that, once safely betrothed, Elaine insists on waiting a miserably long six months for the wedding, because “we have been alone only in the cafeteria, and neither of us has ever had enough time off at the same time to get really to know each other.” So that’s a smart move we can all get behind, even if we feel confident that to get engaged after only one date seems a bit foolhardy. Peggy Gaddis is a bit frustrating as a VNRN author because as good a writer of sentences as she is, her themes and plots are not infrequently off-putting, and she has a penchant for lazy writing mechanics. But in Emergency Nurse she does better than usual and gives us a book we can largely enjoy.