By Suzanne Roberts, ©1968
Two nurses had quit the job at Doc Brady’s Appalachian clinic the year before, quit in what Hope’s supervisor back at Community Hospital described as “anger, disgust, and plain sorrow.” Hope didn’t understand … then. She was beginning to understand now. There was so much to be done … and so much that could be done … a new clinic, a library, a school … to fight the misery on the mountain. And Hope was ready to lead that fight, but she was blocked first by the mountain people who seemed to have no desire to change anything; then by Doc Brady who long ago gave up trying to make them change; and finally by his sone, young Dr. Steve, whom she loved but who gave her a cruel choice: stay on the mountain and break her heart trying to help those who wouldn’t help themselves, or give up and come away with him …
“How can he tell me how pretty my eyes are in one breath and then start talking about thrombophlebitis?”
“A lot of clear thoughts can come to a man while he’s eating squirrel stew.”
Nurse Hope Farrell has just graduated from nursing school, and look out, world! “She came from a family of crusaders, and all that remained was to choose a geographical area where a nurse was needed, and where changes and progress could be made through hard work and dedication.” She’s really looking forward to making her mark on the simple folk of rural Kentucky, but in the usual trend, when she is waiting in the tiny town café with a kindly proprietor who has bad teeth, a man shows up late and treats Hope with rudeness and scorn, not even helping her with her bags! He drives dangerously, and he needs a shave. “What if he’s feeble-minded or dangerous?” Hope worries, but guess who he turns out to be? Her new boss, Dr. Dan Brady, who has no interest in being welcoming or even kind to his idealistic, unrealistic nurse. “What’d you expect, some white-coated M.D. with Hero written all over him?” Well, he’s certainly not that: He exhorts Hope not to waste her time trying to improve everyone, telling her, “you can’t get that big, beautiful dream of something better by giving them free vitamins.”
Well, Hope doesn’t agree, and on her first day, assisting at the birth of a woman’s 11th baby in one of the mountain shacks, she tells the gathered crowd that the mother and baby should be in a hospital, not in their home, because “the baby could still get sick in there in that cabin. If we had a new hospital, when our women had babies things would be 50 percent safer!” She doesn’t understand why everyone gives her the cold shoulder after that. No doubt it’s because they are skeptical about how she arrived at her statistics.
Nonetheless, “Each morning she was filled with lovely ideas about how to stimulate people into wanting to do something about a new clinic, a library, more jobs, better food, better living conditions—” but that mean old Dr. Brady is “the biggest stumbling block” to her dreams. She won’t give up, though! When the illiteracy rate indeed turns out to be quite high, she decides to build a library, and once she’s done with that, she’s going to build a new clinic—though it’s not clear what’s wrong with the old one, apart from the fact that Hope decries its peeling paint and old curtains.
Dan’s son Steve, a doctor on summer break from a fancy Boston hospital, shows up, and Hope is immediately convinced that Dr. Steve is going to “spark them to get going and change their whole way of living and thinking!” But he’s a chip off the old block, telling Hope, “Don’t try to sit in some ivory tower and dream up foolish dreams about a beautiful new clinic and a library and all these people suddenly wanting polio shots for their kids and lots of good books to read, because it isn’t going to work out that way.” Steve grumbles that “nobody wants to learn; nobody gives a darn about what’s happening in the outside world. They don’t even bother to take a newspaper so they can find out!” If they can’t afford food and can’t read, why should they buy a newspaper? Though she fights endlessly with Drs. Dan and Steve, getting exactly nowhere, she suddenly decides “she had fallen hopelessly in love with this angry, arrogant young man,” as you knew she would.
Then she enlists the help of some local teens to start building a library—though how a room full of books is going to improve the illiteracy rate remains unclear; wouldn’t a local teacher be more helpful?—and the kids show up at her house with scavenged bricks and lumber, and spend hours discussing the plan. But then the ringleader of the kids, Darrell, tells Hope that the kids aren’t going to help her anymore because their parents think it’s weird that they’re hanging out at the house of this single woman who goes driving alone. “No girl ever goes out by herself on this mountain,” he tells her—and that’s not all. “You’re tellin’ them that everything they’ve done for over a hundred years is all wrong. It’s like—well, like folks have lived and died and raised families and got by all right, and then somebody like you—a young girl from somewhere else, comes up here and stays a few weeks and tells them they’re nothin’.” He has a point.
Hope, finally giving up, decides to quit her job—but on her way out of town, the alarm goes out that a young girl has gotten trapped in the old abandoned mine and that Dr. Dan has gone in after her—and Steve follows after both of them, because doctors are super expendable, and all these out-of-work miners couldn’t possibly be of assistance. Standing outside and nibbling her nails, Hope decides that “even if this mountain and its people were going to give her a hard time, try to force her out, try to ridicule and hurt her, still—she belonged there and she was staying.” It’s not hard to figure out that Dr. Dan is not coming out, and Hope decides he went into the mine because “he felt so guilty at not having changed things.” She decrees, “Doctor Brady had died in a desperate attempt to make up to these people for what he had stopped trying to give them, hope and courage and a kind of inner strength to forge ahead and make their lives better and more meaningful. He had known he had failed them, and in that last moment he had wanted to do something good for them. That was why he had crawled into the mine to save little Candy.” Furthermore, she suddenly decides that “she’d come to love” and “given all of herself to Appalachia and its people.” Hope has seriously lost all touch with reality.
And now, suddenly, the people are forcing milk on their children and buying ice for the ice box even if it’s expensive and they don’t have any money and half of the ice has melted by the time they get it home and most of them don’t have cars to get to town to buy it. But “that’s what Doc Brady always wanted us to do,” And now they’ve decided to do everything he wanted! Hooray!
This book is simplistic and stupid, basically declaring that no one need be poor if they don’t want to be, “if we only had the gumption.” Where the jobs and money—much less the teachers—are going to come from is breezily ignored. None of the characters are admirable; the two doctors’ angry relentless pessimism is no more believable than Hope’s angry relentless optimism. The worst stubborn ignorance in the book is Hope’s, and it’s difficult to watch her win in the end when she does not deserve it; she has not grown or adapted or attempted to understand or even befriend anyone on the mountain. The Crusades were religious wars in which Christians invaded and conquered other countries that didn’t agree with their beliefs, and Hope has the same take-no-prisoners attitude in her own crusade. It wasn’t pretty then, and it’s not pretty now.