By Peggy Dern
(pseud. Peggy Gaddis), ©1961
The daughter of a doctor, Leona Gregory had known since earliest childhood that she wanted to be a nurse. She had always thought that that would mean working with her father. But now that Dr. Gregory had married a young wife, Leona felt out of place in the household. The young R.N. gratefully accepted a position in a hospital in Cypress City on the Gulf Coast, even though she was afraid it would cut her off from everything she had known. Meeting the cold, beautiful supervisor of nurses, Paula Ingram, and the stern disciplinarian, Dr. Foster, who headed the hospital, seemed to confirm her fears. But Leona also found an opportunity for service she could not have had elsewhere. Then too, there was the handsome, charming senior intern, Cole Jordan … and, working with him, Leona began to feel that her heart might find wings again.
“Nothing is as inevitable as canned peaches in the hospital dining room.”
“Well, well, so you’re going to be my special nurse. I feel a bad relapse coming on. I may be here for months.”
“When people are sick or hurt, a nurse’s uniform or a doctor’s is just about the most beautiful thing in the world.”
It’s entirely possible that it took author Peggy Gaddis, here writing as Peggy Dern, less time to write this book than it did me to read it. The continuity and logic failures are numerous, and Gaddis frequently uses conspicuous words more than once in the same paragraph. Furthermore, this is not the first Gaddis heroine we have met named Leona (see also Nurse in the Shadows).
Here, Leona Gregory is leaving the “brutal winters” of—not Chicago or Buffalo—Atlanta! a climate so inhospitable that to stand on the doorstep and ring the doorbell is to court pneumonia. Though she tells her father that it’s the frigid temperatures that are driving her to abandon the dream that they have held since she was nine—she was to work as a nurse in his office—the real fact is that it’s Leona herself who is bitterly cold. Her father remarried two years ago to a lovely woman named Irene who attempts repeatedly to befriend Leona only to the rebuffed again and again, and finally Leona is packing her bags and huffing off in a jealous pout for the Florida Coast.
Arriving, apparently not having bothered to interview for the job before signing a one-year contract, she is stunned to find that the head nurse and the chief doctor are unfriendly and militant disciplinarians. She befriends nurse’s aide Alma Pruitt, who appears to have bipolar disorder given the way she caroms between hysterical laughter and hysterical tears from one paragraph to the next. She also meets Dr. Cole Jordan, the up-and-coming surgical resident who always insists on commenting on Leona’s looks; bachelor number two is Bruce McLain (also spelled MacClain), who recently inherited a very lucrative ranch in town. Carol Decker is the daughter of the housekeeper on Bruce’s ranch, and though the original owner of the ranch left Carol and her mother well off, Carol has her sights set on Bruce’s larger fortune.
With three women and two men, it’s a game of the musical chairs to find out who is going to end up alone—and with Carol acting the part of the “weirdie,” “mental case,” and “spiteful malicious cat,” she is clearly the one we are not supposed to like. But honestly none of the women are terribly attractive—there’s Leona’s inexplicable animosity toward her lovely stepmother Irene, and Alma Pruitt herself engages in quite a few unattractive games to snare a man, such as pretending she has a fiancé in Tampa; her wild mood swings are also alarming, as she is usually in tears at some point in every scene in which she appears.
So what’s the plot? I mean, beyond thin and implausible? Well, Bruce has been thrown from his beloved horse and saved from paralysis when Dr. Foster plucks a miniscule bone fragment from his spine, and now Bruce has to lie in the hospital for weeks. But Leona is assisting in the surgery and hears Bruce mumble just before he’s going under, “Don’t let anything happened to Starlite.” So when Carol vows to have the horse shot, Leona peels off her scrubs and flies out to the ranch to prevent the murder because “it’s part of the nurse’s job to catch the faintest whisper from the patient and try to do what he asks,” apparently even if it means abandoning her shift. I hope one of my patients will ask me to make a Starbucks run.
Now the thwarted Carol is gunning for Leona—and soon the sheriff turns up at the hospital to arrest Leona because the horse has gone missing, and based on this accusation alone, the sheriff plans to toss Leona in jail. It seems a rather flimsy basis for legal system, but then this is Florida. Out on bond, Leona decides that Carol “will continue to harass me and the hospital as long as I am here.” So despite the fact that Dr. Foster has not agreed to release Leona from her contract, she decides she is quitting—Dr. Foster has better grounds for lawsuit than Carol does, but never mind about that.
Leona goes to tell Bruce goodbye, that she is going back to Atlanta to work with her father after all. “Her father would be overjoyed; and she and Irene would be friends!” This shocking transformation of character, we are told, occurs because “when I fell in love with Bruce, I suppose I sort of grew up.” Here’s surprise number two—she and Bruce, who had spent exactly two afternoons together, are madly in love and will be married the minute Bruce leaves the hospital! And Leona will be leaving her career too, because even though Bruce has expressed no opinion on the matter—and never mind about Leona’s pesky contract—“I’m going to do whatever Bruce wants me to do, always.” Irene tries to talk sense into Leona by saying, “In a successful marriage there is no necessity for a boss. It’s a partnership; an equal partnership; fifty-fifty all the way.” Nonetheless, though she has declared that nursing is vitally important to her, Leona insists on quitting a hospital so short-staffed that “there simply isn’t time for any of us to sit down and hold the families’ hands or soothe them.”
Ultimately this is a carelessly written book with stupid characters, compounded by a large helping of bigotry against the local Seminole population and the poor whites in town as well. (There’s another penitential donation going to the American Indian College Fund from the White Doctor Foundation.) Dr. Foster shouts at a family reluctant to put their five-year-old daughter to surgery for a possibly benign tumor based only on his say-so—in a conversation held in the hospital lobby, no less—and the head nurse explains the doctor’s shocking rudeness (not to mention privacy violation) by saying, “he simply has not the patience or the time to put up with ignorant, stupid creatures”—and Leona is shocked that the nurse thinks Leona might be critical of this approach.
Peggy Gaddis always wants to have everything both ways—Leona couldn’t possibly criticize a doctor for calling it “nonsense” to explain a surgery (these days it’s called “legal consent”), but we are supposed to like Dr. Jordan a lot more because he does. Some characters say some really appalling things about the Seminoles, and these remarks pass without comment, but Indians competently staff the hospital and ranches in town (and ultimately save Bruce’s horse). Women are strong, competent workers who manage large farms and hospital wards, but they chuck it all to land a man. Alma schemes to lure in her crush, including lying about a fiancé and flirting with men in whom she has no interest, but Carol is the one who is called a “scheming cat” for her desire to win Bruce. Alma never has a kind word to say about Carol but completely denies intending to hurt Carol’s feelings when Carol take offense. Every leading male character tells a woman at least once that he ought to “turn you across my knee and whale the daylight out of you!” Need I go on?
I’m ultimately not sure what author Gaddis herself thinks about her characters, but it seems clear to me that she does not have a high regard for women. That being the case, it’s hard for me to have a high regard for Peggy Gaddis or her books, and especially not this one.