By Isabel Stewart Way, ©1962
With looks and a figure that belied the seriousness of her profession, young Dr. Paula Wayne had come to the California wasteland to take over her ailing Uncle Eric’s practice, and to join his fight against the come-lately faction trying to put up another hospital in the desert. It was a bitter contest, and old Doc’s will to live hung on the outcome. It didn’t help matters when, unwillingly, Paula fell in love with Dr. Joel Leander, who led the opposition—but the real trouble came with Mike Comarra, richest rancher in the desert. An animal of a man, well-aware of his influence, he threatened to switch his support to Joel if Paula rejected his advances. “Life” to Paula had always meant the antiseptic facts and colored illustrations in her medical books. Now, she faced a reality she was ill-equipped to deal with. It took the primitive desert and emotions burned raw by the sun to mature her, to teach her that as long as there was honey, there would always be the taste of vinegar.
“Well, if we have to carry on the fight, I’ve sure got the best of it—with such a gorgeous enemy! No holds barred, I trust?”
“Fact is, I never did see a woman doctor this close before!”
“Maybe you weren’t an ethical doctor, for those few moments, but you were all woman, and a damned fine one!”
Dr. Paula Wayne, fresh out of medical school, has come to the desert outside Palm Springs to take over her uncle Eric’s general practice after he is laid low by a heart attack. She’s not exactly excited about the prospect: “There could never be enough challenge for her in the life Uncle Eric lived—managing his small ten-bed hospital and attending his patients who were scattered over a large area of the desert,” she thinks to herself. But she is faced with challenge almost the minute she lands, because the only way she can get out to the small town from the airport is to accept a ride with Dr. Joel Leander, who is her uncle’s arch-nemesis.
Joel is under the impression that Uncle Eric’s practice and Wayne Hospital are not up to snuff. “The equipment’s out-of-date and it’s inadequate,” he tells her, pointing out that the hospital’s nursing staff is headed by Tori Travis, who has no nursing degree and chronic tuberculosis to boot. Actually, Joel’s explanation seems reasonable, that Eric shouldn’t have complete control of the community’s only medical facility without input from others. Paula thinks so, too—and also that Joel himself is pretty gorgeous. “She had wanted to impress him, she admitted in all honesty, and she had wanted to do it as Paula Wayne, good-looking blonde female, measurements 36-26-34, and not as Paula Wayne, M.D.!” He is impressed, and the pair are soon kissing.
Paula soon finds that Uncle Eric really hasn’t been maintaining a modern practice, when on her first day she meets an old woman with a gallbladder infection and discovers that the woman has few records and fewer tests. “How could her uncle have treated a chronic case like this, over a period of time, without insisting on full GI tests?” It won’t be the last time that she encounters shoddy methods, and slowly she begins to come around to Joel’s way of thinking—until, while reapplying makeup after mussing hers while making out with Joel, she sees a negligee on his bed, and decides this belongs to his nurse, Diane Holsworth, whom he’s also been dating.
This sends Paula into a very peculiar tailspin. “Just what was the matter with her, anyway? Had she suddenly gone neurotic? Or was she what her roommate at General used to prophesy she would eventually become—a frustrated virgin?” Paula “had chosen to remain a virgin, but not strictly from moral reasons,” but because “sexual continence seemed a cleaner, more organized way of life.” But now she thinks if she hadn’t seen someone else’s underthings in Joel’s bedroom she would have slept with him that night, and what seems to be bothering her most is that she “had let him know she was willing and ready to be kissed! So she was a frustrated virgin, after all.”
Her morality struggle is compounded when she meets rancher Mike Comarra, a commanding presence against whom she is warned by three different women before meeting him, and who immediately make the pass at her despite the fact that he is married and she is only at his house to treat his wife’s migraine, which he attributes to the fact that he wanted to “visit her bedroom.” He asks, “Dr. Paula, just what can you give a man who has a frigid wife?” Well, she can give him a kiss, just six pages after her encounter with Joel. Then things really get interesting, because when Paula tells him it was a mistake, he declares that he is going to throw his support behind Joel Leander’s push for a new hospital if she doesn’t sleep with him. She refuses, and soon Joel is sending out of flyer for a town meeting to discuss building a new hospital, with funding from a real estate pal of Mike’s. It’s not frequently that we encounter such blatant sexual harassment in a VNRN, and this may be the most blatant case I’ve seen to date, actually.
Paula hears that one of the people at the meeting who will speak out against Wayne Hospital is going to bring up Tori’s tuberculosis, so she packs Tori off to Los Angeles for a whirlwind day of tests, which again, Dr. Eric had never bothered to run. At the meeting she steps forward to tell them that Tori doesn’t have active TB, but another lung disease that will eventually require an operation. As fate would have it, Joel is a would-be thoracic surgeon chomping at the bit to establish a dedicated service in the desert for all the folks out there who need pulmonary surgery, which would be likely about five, tops, but what of it? Tori ultimately agrees to have the operation but—and you knew this was coming—only at Wayne Hospital, with Joel as her surgeon! And, at the same time, she calls out Paula for her hypocrisy when Paula wants Tory to tell Eric that she loves him, while holding herself apart from Joel. Tori is a feisty, admirable character who greatly enriches the story.
The book plays out pretty much as expected, but the ending is a sweet twist. The most interesting thing about this book is its discussion of sexual harassment, as much as it’s capable of doing for the time in which it was written. None of the men seem to understand why Mike’s family is no longer a patient of the Waynes, and when Joel makes an inaccurate guess, “A lot you know about it! Paula thought, with a little flare of exasperation. Men didn’t realize all the truth about Mike Comarra.” And when Uncle Eric finds out that Paula has lost Mike’s support, she hints at what had happened, but Eric snaps, “Surely you realized that risk when a female turns doctor! You can hold a man in line, can you? A decent man doesn’t venture past the boundaries a decent woman puts up!” To her credit, Paula thinks, “You certainly are living in the past!” and asks him, “What does Mike Camara know about the rules for a decent man?” Not that it changes anything, because she makes no attempt to out Mike as a sexual predator.
Instead, she tackles the problem from the wrong angle, thinking not about the dynamics of power but instead about sexual desire, her own and other women’s, feeling particularly empathetic when confronted with a Hispanic ranch worker of Mike’s who bears one of his children (stillborn). She also examines her own sexuality, and chastises herself repeatedly for having “betrayed herself as a desire-filled female!” She renews her vows of chastity, deciding that “sleeping around was a careless messy habit,” and then several times she refers to Joel’s nurse as a “hussy” for having apparently slept with Joel. She’s a bit judgmental for a doctor, and her opposing attitudes toward the Hispanic woman and Joel’s nurse are not examined. Unfortunately, Mike is never called out for his behavior, and in the end is reconciled with his wife, though it is doubtful that this is going to improve his behavior. It’s a simplistic attitude, but one that could be understood given that this book predates #metoo by about 55 years.
Ultimately this is the best of the four books of Isabel Stewart Way’s that I have read, with interesting themes and glimpses back on the mores of an earlier time. Paula is a strong, independent woman and an excellent doctor, even though she is “as man-conscious as any pubescent girl!” If the ending is not difficult to foresee, it is also a relief that the male doctors value and lean on Paula’s strength and talents as a doctor, and don’t brush her off as soon as they start to work in partnership with her. Some of the characters are interesting, even if the writing style isn’t especially outstanding. Overall it’s a decent enough book, one worth reading, even if it insists on dismissing the desert as a “wasteland.”