Radio Readers BookByte: Winifred Beasley, No Fun Voice of Perpetual Reasoning

Feb 3, 2020

Public health workers such as Winifred Beasley played an important role during the Great Depression
Credit Farm Security Administration

This is Leslie VonHolten of Chase County, Kansas, with another HPPR Radio Readers Book Byte.

One of my favorite characters in Stormy Weather by Paulette Jiles is Winifred Beasley, the county health department nurse who is sent to care for the youngest sister, Bea, as she heals from a fall down a well.

As the doctor tells the Stoddard gals, Miss Beasley is “very efficient,” she has degrees in nutrition and nursing and is—quote—“the most concerned person in the world.” What they don’t say is that Winifred is the biggest buzz kill this side of the Rio Grande.

When Winifred arrives, she walks into the house uninvited, an air of judgment on her face from the get-go. “My concern is with the child,” she says after a half-introduction. “Where is she?” Winifred doesn’t have time to pretend to like these scrappy Stoddard gals. There is work to do. Caregiving is serious business.

And down to business she gets: Bea must stay warm. Where is the bleach? The Lysol? Don’t touch the bandage, an infection would be disastrous. Who is employed in this home? Don’t stare at me. The rations are to be used by the injured child—her affectionate term for Bea—and no one else. Canned milk, beef, beef stock, malted milk tablets, cod liver oil, powdered eggs, and calcium tablets. She congratulates Elizabeth, Bea’s mother, for none of them having head lice.

For me, I loved Winifred. This is a book about fearless women who don’t back down from salty men at the horse races, who buy shares in oil wells, who drink and dance and drive tractors and everything it takes to stay together as the dust storms roll across west Texas. And yet it’s Winifred, stern Winifred from the county health department, who whips them into shape, shuts them up, makes them bend to her severe form of care and the threat of sending Bea to the Buckner Home for Children in Dallas.

She’s stern and she’s awful, I am sure, but I also have to think that Winifred carried a lot of responsibility, too. She was a crusader against disease and childhood mortality in a time when the New Deal safety nets were new and porous. She likely worked daily against the old wives’ tales that governed home medicine, would return to homes to see children being treated with strange regional witchcraft-like ointments in what constituted health care. In an age when children slipped into illness and death within an afternoon, Winifred had battles to fight. There was no time to win hearts and minds. Life was delicate. Winifred, with her forceful personality and stern countenance, was dressed for war.

And you know what? All that condensed milk and cod liver oil and beef broth paid off. Bea was good as new after a few weeks. And guess who never gets thanked for her efficient work. Well, Winifred Beasley, I see you. Good job.

The HPPR Radio Readers Book Club is made possible in part by generous gifts from Lon Frahm of Colby and Lynne Hewes of Cimarron, Kansas. Find more at HPPR.org, or like us on Facebook.