Monday, April 11, 2022

Nurse of the Wine Country

By Ruth McCarthy Sears, ©1971
Cover illustration by Edrien King

After the death of her father in Korea, Margo Hale and her mother, Tonia, lived with Margo’s Aunt Elinor—and when Tonia gave up her fight for life without the man she loved, Margo looked upon her aunt as her sole relative. Dimly, she knew that her mother’s people, the Spanish Margiols, had vineyards in California, but she also knew that the Margiols had renounced her mother as an outsider. Then, at Elinor Hale’s funeral, Vincent Margiol appeared—to command Margo to come to the Big M to nurse his seriously ill sister, Maria. Margo’s first impulse was to refuse this imperious uncle, but second thoughts told her that she had nothing to gain by remaining in San Francisco. Dr. Greg Forbes was not interested in a poor young nurse, and Jay Dexter, although charming and wealthy, seemed like a boy to her. She would go to Mendocino and satisfy her curiosity about her mother’s people. To her delight, Nurse Margo found a whole new world with the Margiols, who ruled firmly, but always fairly and with integrity. And she lost her heart completely to her Aunt Maria. But that was before she had been rebuffed by Nikki Margiol, the doctor in the family and a Margiol only by adoption. All that was left for Margo—now that Aunt Maria was recovering her health—was to return to San Francisco …


“She told herself that she had been too eager. Any man liked to be the pursuer. She must be more aloof, less available.” 

“‘I must hurry home,’ she said regretfully. ‘Something terrible has happened to Aunt Elinor.’” 

“I love you—and Uncle Harry died!”

“Mr. Margiol, your sister seems to be in a coma.”

Author Ruth McCarthy Sears is really one of the worst, with a C- average over six books—though she did give us the possibly spectacularly awful Jolie Benoit, R.N.—and here she cements her reputation with a bizarre story of a near cult in the Margiol family. Margo Hale’s mother was a Margiol, but left the family enclave in Mendocino to marry Margo’s father—who then promptly died in the Korean War. The poor woman then “had been waiting for the early death that would reunite her to her man,” and fortunately, a dozen years later, “Mrs. Hale gently expired,” leaving a 12-year-old orphan. What a relief!

Margo’s Aunt Elinor has taken her in and loaned her the money for nursing school: “I consented to your choice of this line of employment only because it would helpful later when you marry,” the spinster tells her niece, before she, too, gently expires while Margo is out on a date, inconveniently. She and her beau walk in to find the poor woman dead in her chair, and Margo elocutes, “Is Aunt Elinor just sitting there so naturally but devoid of life?” Alas, milady, such is precisely the present state of affairs.

Margo has been struggling with her relationship with Dr. Greg Forbes, who is a poor young doctor struggling to make his way and feeling the demands of his purse more than the demands of his heart. He’d been starting to turn his eye toward the daughter of a wealthy doctor who would be able to jump-start his career, and had therefore been neglecting Margo of late. So Margo is feeling a bit lonely when her mother’s brother, Victor Margiol, turns up and insists that Margo come immediately to the family enclave to nurse Aunt Maria, the elderly matriarch, who is sick. Margo asks if Maria has been seen by a doctor—and curiously is told that she has not. “In the Margiol family we make our own doctors and lawyers. Whatever we need, we educate our children to be. So far, we have no Margiol doctor”—though we soon learn that there is a doctor, Nikki Margiol, who is off serving his intern year in Baltimore. But never mind, right now Margo is commanded to work for the family. “Margiols must all be together. No more marrying with outsiders. No, no more of that,” Victor tells her—apparently implying that incest is to be the rule—though later this is contradicted when we are told that first cousins are not to marry. “It’s against the religion, and besides that, it’s bad for the strain.” Phew!

Margo is outraged at this proposal! “You mean, you’re proposing to select a husband for me? That I am to be a virtual prisoner until such time as you decide to make a match for me? What kind of crazy dynasty is this?” Can they give her a week to pack her bags? When her 16-year-old cousin shows up to collect her in a dusty jeep, she is astute enough to recognize that the vehicle is “Vincent Margiol’s way of humiliating her for her arbitrary insistence upon ‘terms.’” On the drive to the family compound, she learns that her chauffeur has been selected to be the family teacher, and his brother, presently too young to drive, is to be the dentist—a job likely to be easier for him because by the time he is ready to go into practice, everyone’s teeth will have rotted out from neglect. “You have to have discipline,” she is told when she expresses her horror that they have no say in choosing their vocations. “Otherwise, the family would fall apart, you know?”

Arriving at the ranch, she is brought to elderly Maria, where she checks her comatose patient’s pulse and diagnoses pneumonia. Mysteriously, however, after bathing the patient and changing her nightgown, the old lady wakes up, cured! But Margo is kept in Maria’s room, not to meet any of the five other uncles or the other aunt, or the wives, or any but one of the 23 cousins, until Dr. Nikki shows up for Christmas—who, meeting her for the first time, grabs her wrists so hard it hurts, and accuses her of coming to get money out of the family—never mind that they are in fact paying her for her services and all but kidnapped her. “Poised, arrogant, imperious, even audacious,” “egotistical, spoiled, and downright rude,” so much so that he uses an occasional Spanish word with his aunt, and “now he’s taking over the sickroom,” with his stupid doctor’s orders—which, having just graduated from medical school six months ago and not even finished his first year of residency, he is entirely qualified to give—so she stomps off to her room and pins her hair up “into a severe French knot. Since the doctor was determined to disapprove of her, she would be as efficient and unfeminine as possible.” So there! Naturally, on Christmas Eve, he kisses her under the mistletoe, “and closing her eyes, she gave herself up to the wonder of swaying lights and singing violins.” They dance a lot, and he walks her back to the house and proposes to her with his dead mother’s wedding ring, but then an old boyfriend of Margo’s from Palo Alto turns up and Nikki stomps off, barely to speak to her again.

Now she’s looking for an excuse to leave, because “this place had become so painful to her since Nikki’s repudiation of her love.” Love?!? Since when, and how is that even possible, after one night of dancing? But it takes several more months before Aunt Maria is over whatever she had, and then Margo is back at her old hospital, where four months after she’d left she feels like “a stranger,” because “there was no one in San Francisco, not a single person, who cared whether she lived or died.” She may be the only VNRN heroine who’s never had a friend at work. But just as she’s sitting down for the first time in her new room, Dr. Greg calls and asks her out. During dinner he reveals that his wealthy uncle died and left him a bundle, and he wants to marry Margo—but somehow this is a terrible disappointment to Margo, who feels “it was money, after all,” again very confusing, because it’s not her money, and if the poor man couldn’t afford to get married, why is it so terrible that now that he can, he wants to marry her? Margo suddenly realizes she’d never loved Greg and walks out of the restaurant—only to see Nikki, who’d stopped into the hotel for cigarettes and is finally willing to talk to her again, so that’s the ending we are supposed to think of as happy. It’s hard to understand how Margo goes from despising Nikki to being in love with him in the space of about two weeks, and is engaged to him basically on the basis of one single pleasant evening she’s had with him, rejecting the evidence of the countless unpleasant interactions they’ve had.

Bizarrely, the Margiol cult is eventually held up for us as a model society, and somehow a plan to convert the city of Mendocino into a large-scale version is underway—though a few months earlier there hadn’t been enough money to buy a pair of horses for Uncle Carlos, now they are funding a clinic and buying horses and cattle as well. “How many of the ‘moderns’ you spoke about in the cities would find solace from all earthly cares in these surroundings, and earn their needs from this good earth?” asks one of the uncles. The kids who are supposed to be teachers will now teach all of Mendocino, and the supermarkets “will be a community affair, supplied by the farmers—the same system as the Margiols have employed for generations, but on an encompassing scale,” the uncle explains. “Who knows? It might be a contribution of worth to a storm-tossed and confused world.” Margo buys into it, thinking that “they knew all the joys of play and dancing, laughing and loving. And the joys and satisfaction of something even deeper, too—a strong and vibrant morality, a respect for the rights of their fellows.” As long as you get to dance and sing, who cares if you can’t decide who you marry or what you do for a living? Soon Margo is drunk on the Kool-Aid, and only needs to feel horrified by a pro-choice demonstration to sign up completely. Because if these “teens demanding the lives of helpless infants of whom they themselves had been the instruments of creation” had been brought up in the Margiol way, “there would be no illegitimate babies to dispose of, because of respect of the rights of others.” It’s a very confused logic, and that’s all I’m going to say about that.

This is a very strange book, one without regard to common sense or prior established facts, or to basic research into winemaking or even Mendocino (which had a population of more than 50,000 in 1971 and was not likely without dentists, medical clinics, or teachers). Nowhere near as daffy as Jolie Benoit, R.N., this book is aggravating in an un-entertaining way. The C grade is really a kiss of death—neither bad nor good enough to enjoy—and Ruth McCarthy Sears is the queen of the C’s.




No comments:

Post a Comment