Saturday, May 6, 2023

The Nurse and the Star

By Peggy Gaddis, ©1963

Star Disappears after Romantic Fiasco Exposed: Hollywood – The Eve Stacy-Rix Blake romance fell apart “live” on coast-to-coast TV last night. In an unexpected bit of audience participation, Blake’s wife rushed on stage and claimed her man. Miss Stacy left quickly and her mysterious whereabouts are still unknown … Where was Eve Stacy? There were fantastic stories, lies, rumors. Everybody guessed, but nobody knew for sure—nobody except Kay Harrell, R.N. Deep in the tropics, Kay thought she was rid of “Eve Stacy” forever. But how long could she hide her glamorous past when the handsome, cynical Dr. Fleming was more than just curious?


“How’d we ever luck onto anybody that looks like you to work in this Back o’ Beyond?” 

“What a perfectly loathsome get-up! You should go on strike against wearing such hideous garb. It’s revolting!”

“The big shots who are so important, swaying vast companies, throwing their weight around, shattering empires with their lightest word. But strip ’em down to a hospital gown and tuck ’em into bed, and they are sniveling babies, as any nurse knows.”

“Being in love is not a gloriously happy experience.”

Nurse Kay Harrell is one of numerous VNRN heroines who’d had the accursed luck of being noticed by a Hollywood director and become, briefly, a rising starlet. This detour is not one that readers will understand, because it doesn’t sound like anything Kay had especially wanted or enjoyed: “She had been like a creature molded of wax, pulled and pushed and twisted this way and that. Often, after the wardrobe department had finished with her, she looked in the mirror and felt quite sure that the seductive, alluring creature that looked back at her couldn’t possibly be Kay Harrell. And of course she wasn’t.” But she hadn’t been alone; the publicity department had fabricated a romance for her with also-rising Rix Blake, and we are given no hint of Kay’s feelings toward him except that when his heretofore unknown wife turns up, Kay had fled Hollywood and taken a job at Mercy Hospital on an unnamed Caribbean island (possibly the Dominican Republic).

Here she instantly develops a deep, boundless hatred for Dr. Anson Fleming, who absolutely deserves it. Aware of her past (despite the lying cover lines), he is convinced that she has come to the island with no other purpose in mind except to seduce Dr. Richard Marston, the wealthy hospital chief who happens to be married. It might help that Valerie Marston is an unbelievably horrible person half his age, one who despises the hospital and the island, and appears to have a severe untreated personality disorder, screeching during her introduction to Kay, “I hate it here! I hate it!s And I’m beginning to hate you!” before falling tear-stained into her husband’s arms and whimpering, “I didn’t mean that, Lover! I adore you! I couldn’t live without you, even if you do keep me locked up in this horrible place with all these horrible natives.”

Kay could never interest Dr. Marston, we are told, because the man is hopelessly devoted to his wife: He “just worships the ground she walks on” even if everyone admits she is “a child,” mentally about 16, who “lives in a dream world she created herself and is very cross if anyone tries to slip in a faint hint of reality.” Valerie is also the most frighteningly racist character I have ever encountered in a VNRN (I cannot reprint the truly despicable lines she utters in this book) who has somehow managed to convince her “Mammy,” who is a native of this country, to come with her and suffer her patronizing insults and serve as housekeeper and cook, finally proving satisfactory after months of training: “Now she does what she is told,” Valerie triumphantly reports. Another success for the patriarchy.

Dr. Fleming—who casually lets drop early on that he was in prison for a year for malpractice, a startling detail that is immediately dropped, never to be seen again—takes every opportunity to all but call Kay a slut every time she passes Dr. Marston a kelly clamp or goes for a walk alone at night, even threatening her “unless you’d like to have your neck broken, stay away from the chief!” Pretty much everyone at Mercy Hospital is insane—as is Kay for continuing to work there.

Dr. Fleming concocts a weird idea that he and Kay should pretend they are in love so that Dr. Marston won’t leave his wife; somehow it seems he believes that Dr. Marston would not trespass on another man’s woman even if he has no qualms about straying from his own wife. It only takes Kay 40 pages to let everyone know this is not true. Then there are vague mentions of voodoo, about the only explanation of which we are given is that it is “a very real and very filthy evil” and somehow the hospital is battling voodoo with modern medicine. Then a woman shows up with her husband, who has been cursed by Old Nick, the local witch doctor, who tied a rope around the man’s leg that no one bothered to remove so now gangrene has set in and the man dies. Old Nick starts hanging around the hospital in a mask at night, apparently after the man’s wife, and now half the staff has fled in fright. Valerie’s “mammy” Maria departs as well, but not before delivering a sound telling off to Kay: “You come here, you treat us like dirt. This is our country. You come here and want to make slaves of us again. Did we ask for your help? Did we send for you? Did we ask you to treat us like we are not humans? You come, you force your ways on us. You tell us all that we do, all that came before you were here, the way we live, is wrong. No, we did not send for you. Go away and leave us to our own ways.” Maria is the smartest, most honest, and most clear-eyed character in the book.

But everyone Kay tells this to only sneers or laughs that probably most of the natives are glad for the help. They wouldn’t know because they never asked—nor are they likely to start inquiring now—but what a shocking thing for the outrageous old biddy to say! “Why the blazes don’t we get out and let them wallow in their poverty and disease and superstition?” snaps one doctor’s wife—and then she decides to train the wife of Old Nick’s deceased victim to become Dr. Marston’s new maid. “She’s so eager to learn and grateful to all of us. So why don’t we give her Maria’s job? She’d take loving care of the chief.” Another problem with ungrateful staff solved!

Kay eventually breaks down and tells the unbalanced Dr. Fleming that she loves him, so at best she wins points for assertiveness, but there’s absolutely no reason why she should love such a dangerously unstable person, any more than she had for loving Rix, or abandoning Hollywood in such an extreme fashion just because a fake romance was publicly revealed as exactly that. The only thing that could possibly make any sense of Kay’s flight and Dr. Fleming’s horrible treatment of her is if, in an earlier draft of the book, Kay had actually had an affair with Rix and was fleeing the scandal when she ran off to the ends of the earth, and if Dr. Fleming had known of it, in which case his concern for Kay’s interference in Dr. Marston’s marriage would be legitimate. But who knows?

But the truly horrifying racism that a number of characters—including Dr. Fleming, who snarls that the locals “breed like flies”—exhibit is even more unacceptable when the other characters vainly try to knock it down (one local doctor points out to Dr. Fleming in the “shocked silence” that follows his remark, that they also “die like flies” and that “it is our job here to cut down on the death rate rather than the birth rage,” but his wife immediately apologizes for her husband’s “impertinent” remark. Why would author Peggy Gaddis have Maria and the local doctor make such excellent points against racism only to have the main characters dismiss them so cavalierly, and without any acknowledgement of their complicity and participation in a racist system, and continue on unrepentant with their own racist attitudes? It’s utterly bewildering—but not unexpected from Ms. Gaddis, who enjoys a large sprinkling of racism in her novels, and who also likes to play both sides of every argument without choosing one side or the other. And so as I urge you to give this very bizarre and disturbing book a solid chuck into the trash, another donation from the White Doctor Foundation goes into the mail.


  1. Okay, so I noticed you had a new Peggy Gaddis review up, so of course I had to check it out (despite myself, pfft). Gotta say, for a summary that seemed to promise Hollywood drama, I was not expecting the turn to racist Voodoo shenanigans--but in hindsight, that cover art probably should have been a hint.

    Parts of the book sound so terrible as to almost slide into absurdist, inadvertent comedy--but maybe that's just a strength of your own writing, and not something inherent to Gaddis'?

  2. I will say that I chose this book for a book club reading -- and we had SO much to talk about! When looked at from a distance, the story is clearly absurdist and even comedic, but the problem is that Peggy Gaddis seems to take herself seriously, so it's hard to appreciate when in the pages that this book is completely bizarre--unlike the works of Arlene Fitzgerald, say, who is terrible but hilariously so. But I do appreciate the compliment to my writing! Glad you enjoy the blog!