Sunday, October 9, 2022

Reach for Tomorrow

By Georgia Craig 
(pseud. Peggy Gaddis), ©1960
Cover illustration by Mort Engel

When Claire Frazier turned in her candy-striped probationer’s uniform for a pin reading Registered Nurse, she knew she owed a debt to those who had made her happiness possible. At once she set out to pay off her obligation with interest—and with love. To her patients, Claire gave time and understanding and the skill of her hands. To her fiancé, Dr. Richard Massey, she gave the devotion and tenderness of her heart. And both mocked her, abusing her good intentions. Disillusioned and burning with shame, Claire had to pick up and mend the pieces of her broken heart. The scene of Claire’s reunion with life and love is a world cruise. Among the fellow passengers who changed her life are the attractive second officer, a detective, a confidence artist, and a romantic teenager. And the ports of call on her emotion-filled voyage include a visit with a would-be suicide, a ship-wide search for a strangely missing passenger, and an expensive game of cards which might have been dishonest.


“I do love the way you nurses parcel me out among you, as though I were a cold Sunday night supper!” 

“Even if we are strung up like a side of beef in a smoke-house, patients do have feelings and fears and hopes and aspirations.” 

“Next to the Christmas card racket is the ‘get well’ card foolishness. I’ll take a wager that ninety percent of that bundle of mail is made up of ‘get well’ cards and all of them from people who don’t give a darn whether I do or not!”

“If a woman is truly in love with a man, she wants to do what he wants, live the way he wants to live, because since he will be the breadwinner, it’s her responsibility to go along.”

Frankly, as I was almost finished with this book, I was shocked to see that Peggy Gaddis is the author, because this book is not much like her usual fare. It’s got a little bit of a mystery to it, and has a few plot threads to it that make it a bit more complex than the usual VNRN, and not once does a man offer to spank the woman he’s pursuing (although the nurse does mention spanking her female patient at one point, so it’s a partial credit). Instead, here we have Nurse Claire Frazier, who as the cover opens is madly in love with Dr. Richard Massey to a degree that does in fact seem doomed; every time the pair meet up in the hospital hallway they are drinking each other in and speaking with a “yearning tenderness” and a “radiant, bright-eyed” expression about how desperately they wish they were off in a corner making out. But at the end of Chapter Two, Dr. Massey has eloped with a wealthy “man-hunter,” and Claire has been offered a cruise by a delightful, cantankerous spinster patient with a broken leg who won’t be able to go; to be honest, I wish I’d been left behind to hang out with Miss Dawson, reading the financial section and gossiping about everyone in the hospital. 

Instead, we are dumped on a ship departing Jacksonville for Hawaii by way of the Panama Canal. There are a dozen passengers aboard, but we are principally concerned with the glamorous Vera Barclay and her frumpy 18-year-old daughter Nora; an older, dapper gentleman called Major Lesley; and “sullen-looking, withdrawn” 25-year-old MacEwen Russell. There’s also the devastatingly handsome second officer, Curt Wayne, who tries to be polite to Claire, but she is as mean and nasty as MacEwen and snubs him ruthlessly at every turn, convinced he is having an affair with Mrs. Barclay.

The mysteries of the book center on why Mrs. Barclay looks so familiar to Major Lesley, who has quickly become Claire’s best friend on board. Nora turns out to be another sullen child, which Mrs. Barclay attributes to the fact that she has “rescued” Nora from an “awful boy! A mere nobody—an oaf!” back home and dragged her off on this cruise. But every time Claire tries to commiserate with Nora about their broken hearts, Nora just looks confused; even after a half-dozen conversations like this, Claire never catches on, which is another mystery. As is the issue of why, when Claire points out to Mrs. Barclay that Nora has a hand-shaped bruise on her cheek, she is shocked when MacEwen tells her that Mrs. Barclay beats Nora, and why Curt is so insistent that the accusation is “bilge” and “arrant nonsense.” Nora at one point even attempts suicide, which Claire treats with bandages and a hearty scolding, snapping, “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself, scaring us all?” and ultimately deciding that everyone should “pretend it never happened.” Again, Claire is convinced it’s due to this phantom boyfriend, but the reader is never told why Nora is in such despair. There are a few possible clues in some alleged card sharking and a very fancy wallet, but these questions drop out of view off the port bow in a matter of minutes.

It is finally revealed that Mrs. Barclay is not what she appears!!! At this point one of the young men insists, “I’m going to marry Nora and take her home with me—for keeps, whether she likes the idea or not,” telling Nora, “I’m taking over from here on out.” Naturally, Nora swoons. Claire is cured of her heartbreak in half a page’s conversation with another eligible bachelor, but more nasty sniping follows a misunderstanding, and the final mystery is why anyone would have her after she’s been nothing but mean, nasty, and suspicious the entire trip. So if the book is a little meatier in its plotting, the characters are the usual pasteboard, making this book a decent enough read but not a superlative one.

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