Monday, March 20, 2023

Noonday Nurse

By Ray Dorien, ©1957
Also published as New Nurse at Noonday 

Young Kathie Vincent, assistant nurse in the hospital of Noonday, arrived to find the place very different from her imaginings. Noonday Lake, in the outposts of Canada, yet near a great airbase, was a melting pot of humanity. Here, in the small hospital, Kathie’s ideals met opposition, her courage was tested, her love met enmity. Three different men came strangely into her life. How was she to know which of them would share her life?

“Noble dreams were not so easy after all.” 


Kathie Vincent is a young nurse from London (trained, interestingly, at St. Antholin’s by the battleaxe matron nurse Miss Cunningham, both of which appear in another book by Ray Dorien, Call Dr. Margaret, which is a device I always think is cute) who, let down in her adolescent crush on longtime family friend Huw (pronounced Hugh), decides to sign up to work for the Fosdike Foundation in the wilds of Labrador. It’s an untamed outpost, not far from its earliest days of a couple shacks strung along Noonday Lake, full of French settlers, Eskimo, Indians, and—of course—Fosdikes, Dr. Alan Fosdike and his spinster sister Mame in particular. 

In true VNRN fashion Kathie immediately runs afoul of the serious, hard-working Dr. Fosdike by not realizing that luggage is not delivered  to the house by the airport in these here parts (those were the days!) and by trying to pat a sled dog that, unaccustomed to domesticity, bites her arm. She also argues with him that the Noonday settlers are capable of self-determination and need not be tightly managed by the Fosdike Foundation, which had brought sanitation and modern medicine to the area in the past, and continued to attempt a heavy-handed authority. “Mustn’t they fight for themselves to make it any good?” Kathie asks. “Years ago they had so little chance that it was good for someone else to help them. Only it’s from the outside, and they should do some of it themselves.” Needless to say, Dr. Fosdike resists her advice, snipping patronizingly, “I don’t quite agree with ignorance taking over power.” And indeed, despite her ongoing campaign, it doesn’t appear that Kathie ever has any influence for the autonomy of the (largely indigenous) local population.

But Dr. Fosdike appears charmed by her spirit and novelty, and invites her out to his charming house by the shore to have dinner with him and his severe sister Mame, who spends much of the afternoon glaring at Kathie: “If looks could kill, Mame’s would have destroyed her.” But he seems more enchanted by her than ever and invites her to attend a reception for visiting dignitaries. There, numerous hints are dropped by the old fogies that they are pleased that she will be marrying Dr. Fosdike, and Kathie—though flattered by the important man’s kind attentions—is alarmed by the mistaken idea of a bond between them.

In the interim, back at the hospital, she has been nursing bush pilot Larry Hope, who crashed his plane and needs a lot of nursing to pull him through his serious injuries. She begins to feel attracted to Larry, and when he tells her that he is in love with her, she responds that she loves him, too. But shortly after the dignitaries depart, he chills overnight and decides he will go to Montreal to complete his recovery. He tells her their exchange was a mistake, adding, “Don’t you think that I want to stand in your light.” And off he goes. In her broken-hearted state, she agrees to marry Alan Fosdike, thinking she might as well be useful if she can never be happy in love again, while realizing that though “she wanted her own life,” she will essentially be giving it up if she marries Alan. Secure of her hand, Alan becomes more imperious and less solicitous of her, ordering her to come to his house for dinner and paying little attention to her.

But then Huw turns up in Montreal, and when Kathie flies out to visit him, she discovers a shocking coincidence, that he is working for Larry’s air transport company, and of course she spends an evening with Larry and Vanessa, who is a major investor in the company. Huw lets drop a few hints that Larry’s business is not stable, and Larry, congratulating Kathie on her engagement, adds, “How could a man think of marrying when he might be a crock, when his business might come out on the wrong side?”

More confusion ensues about Larry’s heart—Vanessa tells Kathie that she is going to marry Larry—and more business woes come to light, though they could be saved by a contract to provide all the air transport for the Fosdike Foundation. And though Kathie is called on to press her intended on behalf of the struggling airline, the story closes itself out with the usual medical crisis, in this case a severe viral illness contracted by several characters.

In this interesting story the writing is somewhat ephemeral in feeling; you don’t get a vivid picture of the settlement but more of an impressionistic atmosphere, with attention to small details such as when “the low-heeled slippers which she always brought to the house pattered along the polished boards of the hall.” You are regularly treated to some very pretty phrases, such as when we learn that “an affectionate Bobby dripped ice cream on her frock” or “she did not think she had the strength to discipline herself to a lie.” Kathie is a strong character—if, it must be confessed, not especially interesting—and her broken heart is easy to sympathize with. The condescension toward native people is not horribly overt, and Kathie does advocate for their rights to self-government. If this book lacks the extra sparkle that would make it a grand slam, it is a solid if quiet triple, one I can find no major fault with, and one I can easily recommend.

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