By Ann Rush
(pseud. Sara Jenkins Cunningham), ©1956
Also published as Florida Nurse
Her superiors thought Nurse Dee O’Mara was too young, too pretty, and maybe too frivolous, for this kind of work. But Dee had a taste for adventure, and an iron will, so she got the job. She was sent out on a field assignment, one of the toughest ever held by a young woman, and the men she had to deal with didn’t make things easier for her. There was Dr. Barrows, tall and thin, demanding and badly overworked; and Jack Gregg, the cynic, who saw in her only the pretty girl—not the dedicated nurse; and above all there was Van Covington who gave her the biggest headache (and heartache) of all …
“So you’re the reason men have operations.”
Nurse Diosa O’Mara—mercifully known as Dee—has just graduated from nursing school, and she’s been recruited to work in south central Florida between Miami and Ft. Myers to care for migrant workers because she speaks Spanish (in a very fleeting explanation, it seems her mother is from Spain). Pulling into town, she strikes up a hostile relationship with the first person she meets, realtor Jack Gregg, who is good-looking but too aggressive, looking her up and down and plopping down uninvited at her restaurant dinner table. He’s not overtly horrible, outside of being creepy, though when she starts chatting him up—VNRN heroines always warm up shockingly fast to creeps—we readers can’t wholly blame her.
There are three big ranching outfits in town that use migrant workers, all run by unfriendly, resistant bosses, two of whom immediately toss her out when she shows up suggesting that they let her give clinics for their workers, but grumpy Van Covington agrees to let her stay—to wash out the dorms where the workers will be living. After one day of scrubbing and cooking Van a sardine omelet (this is apparently a thing; please comment below if you have tried one!), she agrees to go with him to the airport to pick up a planeload of workers he’s paid to have flown over from Puerto Rico, wearing “a smart black dress and a tiny black hat with an exaggerated feather,” the wild inappropriateness of which is never mentioned, but she wins back points when she insists on driving the truck to Van can sleep on the way.
At the airport, Jack shows up and buys her coffee while Van shepherds the workers through immigration—and then the two men exchange fighting words. Turns out Jack is hoping Van is finally going to go bankrupt after two consecutive bad harvests and will be forced to sell off his farm, which is the best one in the area. “You know I’m going to get it one of these days, by hook or by crook,” Jack grins. Van stomps off—only to find that the workers had gotten into the wrong truck and been kidnapped! So his investment in bringing them over is lost … who could be behind it???
A week later she finally gets to start a nursing clinic and attempts to give classes in childcare and sanitation. The classes aren’t going well, because the women don’t trust Dee and they’re too tired after working all day to scrub their houses, too. But a white immigrant worker named Neva Morton steps up to help. Neva is charismatic, intelligent, and hard-working—but she has a cleft lip, which causes Dee to give her “a look of surprise and distaste” when she sees it, professional that she is. Neva plays the accordion and sings comic songs she’s written about the joys of keeping a clean house, and tells the workers that Van will give a prize for the cleanest house. Soon the migrants are planting flowers and buying paint.
Now Van’s workers are all being lured off to a still in the woods and are too drunk to work, and Van is again convinced Jack is behind it. Dee, who has started dating Jack by now, is outraged, though she does find out that Jack is the financial backer of one of the ranches that won’t let her in. “Everything bad in Van’s life is caused by one man,” she fumes. “Jack’s quite a man, but if he tried, he couldn’t be to blame for everything you credit him with. There isn’t time enough in one life.” When she’s with Jack, though, she defends Van, and Jack begins to reveal his hatred for Van. “One more year of poor crops and that land he’s squatting on is mine,” he gloats. Then he proposes in the usual way of men we’re not supposed to like: He tells her, “You know by this time that you’re going to marry me, don’t you, sugar?” Mercifully, Dee “shied away from that, half-frightened by the idea."
Then crop duster Eddie proposes to Neva, but she turns him down because of her cleft lip. This sends Dee to Miami to hunt down a plastic surgeon who will do the repair for free, and of course finds one who agrees: “I do not perform operations like this for sweet charity, but because the ugliness makes me shudder.” Nice. While in town, Dee sees an expose in the newspaper that Jack’s ranch is keeping its workers prisoner in squalid conditions, barely feeding them. Flying back home in disbelief, the first person she meets in town is one of the kidnapped workers, who confirms the newspaper story. She takes the man to the police to help him tell his story and threatens the cops when they initially respond with indifference, and soon Jack is arrested for “peonage.” There’s no point in telling you how the book goes on from there, since you’ve seen this ending coming since the first shouting match Dee has with Van.
There’s a lot to be admired in this book. Dee is feisty and takes nobody’s guff, but it would have been better if we’d seen her work at more nursing and less cleaning and toting wood. Jack is never overtly awful, though he does make you suspicious, so you can’t entirely blame lonely Dee for going out with him. Van is gruff but is still sympathetic, unlike some male would-be boyfriends who never overcome their initial unpleasantness. Neva is a fantastic character, very well drawn, and though the Black characters—and Neva, too—talk in dialect—when I first saw their speech I cringed—the characters are treated respectfully. There is occasional humor in the writing and even some brief politics, when Neva talks about how native American migrant workers don’t like imported migrant workers because they work for less money and so get the jobs. And of course the cover is fantastic. The ending, though, was totally flat and disappointing. So if a couple of minor flaws keep this from being a truly top-notch book, but it’s still one worth reading.