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Cherry Ames, Imperialist Nurse?

June 15, 2009

The best part of discovering the Cherry Ames series reprinted by Springer Publications was finally getting to read Cherry Ames, Jungle Nurse.  Originally published in 1965, this book chronicles Cherry Ames’s nursing work in a rural village in Kenya.  A doctor friend, Bill Boyd, is going there to set up a small hospital to treat villagers suffering from the “sleeping sickness.”  It’s like Doctors Without Borders.  While Cherry is there, she uncovers a mystery and stops a diamond smuggler.  Because, of course there is a mystery.

I’d been wanting to get my hands on this one for ages.  As an original copy, it’s very tough to find, without paying huge amounts of money.  In retrospect, it would have been a good idea to read this one before I majored in anthropology at Vassar.  I knew the language and social conventions would be relics of the past, would seem quaint.

That innocence is what I like about the series. As I read more of the Cherry Ames, I should write a post about the portrayal of nursing in media.  I need help with that one though, book help. Because I can only think of nurses on TV.  Suggestions for comparative reading?

Back to Cherry in the jungle…Getting outfitted to head to the village, she gets “three pairs of khaki slacks, three khaki bush jackets and three skirts.” Skirts? What? Don’t tell me she wears pantyhose in the jungle?  But I keep getting distracted by the gender antiquities.  So anyway.  Skipping over the hunting (they eat the game they hunt, though there are trophy safaris going on around them) and sticking with the village…”Cherry, they don’t call Africa the ‘Dark Continent’ or the ‘Land of Mystery’ for nothing,” says the good doctor.  My inner anthropologist falls over laughing.  But wait, it gets better.  “I told you that the chief help these natives need was learning to help themselves,” Bob proclaims, as the hospital gets rolling.  Erk! Hmm, maybe it’s just Bob who’s given to imperialist stereotypes.

Enter Kandi, young village boy with scorpion sting in his foot.  As he recovers, he latches onto “Missy Sherry,” and wants to be her houseboy, serving her every need with devotion.  She nicknames him “Sugar Candy” jokingly.  Inner anthropologist gags a little.  And snickers.

Don’t get me wrong as I pick this thing to shreds.  (And I didn’t even go off on the pesticide spraying, that made the villagers and doctors cough, being sprayed all over the village to get rid of the tsetse flies.) I love that I even get to read this.

I love that I’m seeing into a different set of perceptions, a different set of assumptions.  As much as my inner anthropologist gives me a way to question, a way to be brought up short by stereotyped language, I wish I had a time machine. Because I can imagine reading this before the Internet, before CNN, before Angelina Jolie.  And wondering, and being inspired.  It’s a prototype of Doctors Without Borders, I guess.  I wonder how many kids it inspired to travel, or to go into medicine in that kind of service context.  And even if the stereotypes are wrongheaded, the medicine, and the intent to give service, is pretty admirable.

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