Heart in the Right Place: A Memoir, by Carolyn Jourdan

Nov 3, 2008

This book is charming, a pure delight, and I enjoyed every page.

Memoir is still arguably the publisher's genre of choice these days. But one opens most of them with trepidation, dreading, however well told, the story of childhood abuse, cruel parents or step-parents, substance abuse, addiction, incarceration, rehab and, worst of all, in many of them, the rise of the now clean and sober phoenix/hero from the self-indulgent ashes.

Heart in the Right Place is none of that. This book is charming, a pure delight, and I enjoyed every page.

The time is just a couple of years ago. The setting is rural, Appalachian foothills, east Tennessee. The narrator is Carolyn Jourdan, daughter of the town's only physician, who has come home to serve as receptionist/assistant in her dad's office because her mom has had a heart attack.

Ms. Jourdan, a plain and shy girl in high school, thought she had left Hooterville forever. Jourdan has degrees in bioengineering and law and works as a U.S. Senate counsel in D.C. with a specialization in atomic energy law. She has it made, enjoying a great salary, fine car, the best restaurants, the poshest hotel rooms, and lots of admiration and prestige. She expects to help out for a few days, but the reader knows, a few days does not a memoir make. Mom recovers slowly and Jourdan's stay grows longer.

Jourdan loved her work in D.C. because she knew she was doing good in the world, making a difference on a large scale. Since she is working with nuclear power, she thought she could, possibly, save the world. She learns now that she can make a big difference on a small scale, a more human scale. She learns to see the world in a grain of sand, as William Blake taught us.

Since her dad is the town's only doctor, everyone comes through the office. Jourdan tells of her father's infinite caring for each patient, including, one might even say especially, the ones who cannot pay. Dr. Jourdan has not had a vacation in many years because, it seemed, every time he left town, someone died and he couldn't stand it.

The parade of cases that comes through the office reminded me of All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriott, except with people instead of horses and sheep. Sometimes the problem is life-threatening in the extreme. One man is in anaphylactic shock in reaction to some medicine. Another man has driven an eight-inch dagger of wood through his hand. It's very painful, but not mortal. Some patients are simple-minded, some senile, some hypochondriacal. Dr. Jourdan treats them all and, because he knows them personally, he can treat them individually.

And, just we learned from Anthony Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential, never to order fish in a restaurant on Monday, since the last fish delivery was surely Friday, so we learn in Heart in the Right Place that suspicious individuals seeking drugs usually appear on Friday. The weekend is looming and they fear being caught short. Dr. Jourdan and Carolyn can identify these fakes by experience and intuition and play a comical cat and mouse game, suggesting over-the-counter meds, which are, of course, unacceptable.

For every hypochondriac or conman, however, there are ten truly brave patients, many of them with chronic or even terminal illnesses, who show real courage and grace.

And the whole business is not made any easier, to put it mildly, by the astounding amount of Medicare/Medicaid paperwork involved, paperwork which challenges the faculties of a very bright woman with degrees, as I have said, in bioengineering and law.

As Jourdan's time at home stretches from days to months she gradually gets over the pain of missing her friends and the fast-lane life in Washington and falls in love with her home place, perhaps for the first time. And there may be a man involved too.