Friday, November 27, 2020

The Doctor of Blue Valley

By Frances Dean Hancock, ©1960

When Dr. Barbara Davies returned to Blue Valley to practice the profession she loved, she found two newcomers to the remote little town. Young Dr. Richard Blake, handsome and unmarried, who, for an unexplained reason had left a big city practice to open an office in Blue Valley. And wealthy young John Lowton, badly crippled by a terrible accident, who said Blue valley held happy childhood memories, that he had returned to hide his pain and helplessness from the world. One of these men found the way to Dr. Barbara’s heart. But she knew she must solve the riddle in his past if she were to find peace for the future.

GRADE: B

BEST QUOTES:
“Barbara always talked to children just as she would to adults, which was one reason they liked her. They liked it when she used words they didn’t understand, because words are such fascinating things and one can repeat a new one over and over until it has color and all sorts of mysterious meanings.”

“As a young girl, she had been active in the fight for women’s rights and she never seemed to realize that the battle was over and that all the parades and hunger strikes and imprisonments were now ancient history. Her fight against MEN went on.”

“It’s worry and boredom that make people sick and old—especially boredom.”

“You’re a very pretty girl, even if you are a doctor.”

“If you can persuade some of these people to have fewer babies and fewer hound dogs, I’ll appreciate it. They come out to meet you in packs—I mean, the hounds, not the babies—and they bay at me. They’re entirely too affectionate; they ruin my trousers.”

REVIEW:
Dr. Barbara Davies has returned home to Blue Valley, Tennessee, the small town where she grew up. “She knew that she could have done nothing else in view of Aunt Agnes’s encouragement and financial help,” because all rich spinster aunts are also very imperious. Here she finds another doctor in town, Richard Blake, who is doing fairly well for himself: “Dr. Blake was quite generally popular. The men liked him. He went hunting and fishing with them and had even bought a coon hound. The men might laugh a little at his Abercrombie and Fitch clothing and elaborate fishing gear, but he was a fairly good shot and could take his ‘likker’ straight and was an all-around good fellow even if he was a city man and a Northerner.” Immediately all the townsfolk pair him up as the future husband of Barbara, but it’s easy to see that’s just a red herring. Dr. Blake is fun to hang out with and he’s certainly cute and all, but he’s a bit of a lightweight, and he is condescending to his patients. “The way you get on with these backward people without losing your temper over their superstitions and their yarbs is wonderful,” he tells Barbara. “He was always frivolous, she thought. There was nothing that she could honestly criticize about his treatment of his patients, but he did it all as if it were some secondary occupation.”

The main hook of the story hangs on a young man, Lawrence Price, who is almost tossed in the front door of the clinic, which adjoins Aunt Agnes’s house where she lives, by a huge thug. Lawrence has been slashed in the face, and it requires Barbara’s skill to sew him back up, and this being the old days when folks needed weeks in the hospital to heal a paper cut, he is moved into the back bedroom for his convalescence. “He was, without question, a very good-looking boy, and she did wish that he was not a young thug. He didn’t look like one, but all the evidence she had pointed to his guilt.” But despite his being a hoodlum, out of concern that he will be attacked again, she and Agnes tell a little fib, that he is a cousin from out of town, but this proves a smidge inconvenient when Charles continues to hang around, aided and abetted by Agnes, who likes having a young person around to dote on, since Barbara is too busy working all the time for petting. Barbara’s office gal, Willi May Sayre, also takes a shine to Lawrence, and one minute she’s swooning with love, and the next she’s bursting into tears and running out of the room.

There’s this other man in town, John Lowton, who the town believes has been wounded by elephants, rendering him a cripple for life. He’s proud and reserved, but he immediately cottons to Barbara, and early on in their acquaintance he kisses her—but then takes it back: “I’m sorry. For a moment, I forgot that you’re a doctor—and that I’m a cripple,” he tells her. “It was dreadful that he should feel so humiliated simply because he walked with a crutch—as if that debarred him from casual kisses,” she thinks, and schemes to get him seen by her old mentor, the great orthopod Dr. James Gray.

All the men have mysteries, come to think of it—how John Lowton became crippled (a tree fell on him when he was “collecting” rare birds for the Smithsonian and a book he was writing), and the back stories of Lawrence and Dr. Blake, who it turns out has been accused of something in Chicago and fled to where his reputation couldn’t find him. Two of the mysteries are intertwined, of course—it turns out that Dr. Blake had been dating Lawrence’s sister, and on a date had argued with her, and she’d jumped out of the car and gotten hit by a truck and killed. Lawrence had gone to Dr. Blake’s office with a gun, and Dr. Blake had slashed him with a scalpel, and Dr. Blake’s father had been visiting and had grabbed Lawrence and dumped him at Barbara’s office. Wounded in the act of attempted murder, Lawrence had kept his mouth shut about the incident lest he be arrested. But now, scared straight after another unsuccessful attempt on Dr. Blake’s life in which he shoots Dr. Blake in the shoulder and gets away scot free when Dr. Blake flees town again, he is ready to marry Willi Mae and move back to Chicago.

John Lowton, of course, undergoes surgery with Dr. Gray and is no longer crippled, so all is right there, and we can tie up that completely predictable ending in a completely perfunctory way. All is not completely lost, however; Barbara is an independent woman who tackled adventures without fear and does her job very well. She’s also the only VNRN heroine I’ve met in months who actually refuses to accept it when someone says that nothing is wrong as they mope around the house. On the other hand, she refuses to ask John Lawton to dinner, because “asking him to dinner, although the invitation came from Aunt Agnes, he might make him think that she was pursuing him. The thought was unbearable.” So that’s one job she doesn’t tackle very well. I had hoped this book might be along the lines of the soft, sweet, and slow stories of a different Hancock, Lucy Agnes (who, ignoring the really bad Student Nurse, has earned a 3.5 average in the other four reviews she’s gotten here), but alas, it’s more commonplace than that. It’s certainly worth reading, with good humor, several big vocabulary words, and a reference to Jane Austen, but it’s just that I had hopes for more.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Hollywood Nurse

By Alice Brennan, ©1966

Merry Neil, private nurse to the “King of Hollywood” finds but nearly loses brilliant, handsome Jeff Morrow in the heartbreak city. Her love is threatened by Natalie Pries, moviedom’s beautiful, spoiled darling, and the romantic tension builds and builds …

GRADE: B+

BEST QUOTES:
“Everyone who comes to California has to drink orange juice. It’s part of the protocol.”

“‘He didn’t try a pass or anything like that.’
“Tammy said crisply, ‘I’d feel  insulted if I were you.’”

“We all live by ourselves. I mean, when you come right down to it.”

“Who wanted a big, husky girl anyway? Not men, surely.”

“One thing that always ruins a conversation is somebody getting serious.”

“What she needs is the kind of guy who’d sock her any time she got out of line. She’d respect a guy like that. But she was born with a beautiful face and that louses everything up.”

“Don’t you know blushing is passé?”

“One thing I’ve found out,  nurses don’t need to diet. They run it off!”

“‘It isn’t fair for nurses to be as pretty as you two,’ he chided. ‘It makes people want to be ill.’”

“‘You don’t have the proper look of awe,’ he chided. ‘Don’t you know I’m a very important guy?’”

“How can you get romantic about a girl who has to stick her tongue out first thing so you can get a look at her throat or intestines or something?”

“‘Do you know what I really like to drink?’ Natalie asked her. ‘Milk. I mean, really, isn’t it ghastly? Can you imagine something like that getting out? “Sex queen admits she drinks milk”? I mean, really!’”

“You’re a very difficult person. I’m beginning to feel slightly sorry for your patients.”

“Southern California in the smog would make a great background for one of those old English horror movies.”

REVIEW: 
Author Alice Brennan brought us a triplet of nurse heroines in Nurse’s Dormitory, and here she earns another B+ for her second trio with the incorrectly singular Hollywood Nurse: By my count, Merry Neil, Agnes McLeod and Tammy Moore are more than one. As stories go, each character is less than a whole, though, so maybe not much more than one.

Merry Neil is the ostensible star of the book, and she’s a fairly bland lass who as roommate Tammy grouses, “for a girl who doesn’t want any breaks, and who wouldn’t know what to do with a break, you’re getting them all. It’s a shame you’re so nice, because I’d like to hate you.” For starters, Merry is nursing aging producer Pierson Webb, who’s checked in for what turns out to be metastatic cancer. Then, in attempting to escape the paparazzi who chase her down for an update on Pierson’s status, she’s picked up by a strange man in a white Jaguar who turns out to be famous crooner Arch Heller. She ends up dating Arch’s lawyer Tom Harton, who had been squiring young starlet Natalie Pries. It’s true that for a  lowly nurse, Merry does land undue attentions: She’s stalked by both Natalie and gossip columnist Mai Hinge in addition to the aforementioned male celebrities. But to no avail, she swears! She’d fallen for a man back in Michigan who’d turned out to be married, and now, time after trying time, she reminds herself fiercely, “I will not allow myself to fall in love with him. Or with any man. Never, never, never again!” The fact that this means she will be alone all her life never crosses her mind, and her philosophy certainly doesn’t stop her from dating. But all this is irrelevant; we know how her story will turn out!

Next we turn to Agnes, who had married an intern at an early age, but the bastard had walked out on her, not knowing she was pregnant, because “I suddenly realized the enormity of what I’d done. I’d saddled myself with a wife when all I’d ever wanted in my entire life was to become a doctor. So I walked out on her,” Harvey Miles says now when he miraculously turns up as a blind date at the nurse’s apartment in Hollywood, when he’d last seen Agnes in Ohio six years ago. In the interim, Agnes has had a baby, Ellen, who lives in San Francisco with Agnes’ mother—apparently there are no nursing jobs in the Bay Area—and is rapidly dying of a congenital heart defect that Agnes cannot bring herself to acknowledge, much less agree to treat. Once he learns of Ellen’s existence, from blabbermouth Tammy, Harvey forces Agnes to agree to Ellen’s surgery, and what a break for Agnes: “She wasn’t ready to admit it,  but there was almost a feeling of relief in her: She was almost grateful to Harvey for taking the decision out of her hands.” After Ellen’s operation, the rapprochement is pending, even if Agnes can’t admit it. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m not ready to think about it yet,” she says but the pair are not actually divorced, so you can feel fairly confident they will get back together, especially since they have a child to consider. “What she did would depend on what she thought best for Ellen,” and Ellen herself is already growing attached to Harvey. “Agnes watched his head bent over the child’s bed. The word ‘daddy’ was still painful and shy in Ellen’s lips, but she seemed to find delight in saying it.”

The most interesting of the three nurse roommates is Tammy, who only became a nurse “because her mother had thought she should  be one. She wasn’t like Merry or Agnes … dedicated.” Instead, Tammy wants to be … a star!! Her plan on becoming one do not, however, involve trying out for parts or taking acting classes—that’s strictly for chumps!—but to wow famous people with her good looks and be “discovered,” so she begs Merry to ask Pierson to give her a screen test. Pierson agrees to meet Tammy at his house, and the scandal is that he’s planning to put Tammy on the casting couch with gossip columnist Mai hiding behind the curtains to witness and publicize Tammy’s downfall. It’s an interesting dilemma, because Tammy has said conflicting things: “If anybody … I mean anybody … tried that proposition stuff on me, I’d punch him in the nose,” she insists, but then wonders, “Is that the truth? Would I do that? If … if Pierson Webb offered me what I want, a screen test, a contract, and there were strings attached to it, what would I really do?” For better or worse, though, she’s spared the actual test of her character when Pierson changes his mind and “talked to me like a father. He said I should go to drama school and learn how to be an actress. He told me beauty alone can’t get a girl by in Hollywood these days.” Phew! Although the book holds up Natalie Pries as a woman who’d been working in a dinky drugstore when Pierson had wandered in and made her a phenom, so the lecture doesn’t really hold a lot of water.

Then Tammy meets Pierson’s son, whom he’d abandoned decades ago, and wilts into a pathetic, spineless nothing: “She was content just to be with him. And she’d never felt like that with any man before. Always before a man had been there to be used.” Here we uncover the book’s main theme—“what she really needs is to get married to a guy who’s the boss and makes her know it and like it.” Frankly, I can’t imagine any sane woman liking the fact that she has no say in a relationship, but what do I know? Clearly these nurses are all landing  men, the only thing that matters, once they surrender their independence. Two out of the three, anyway—Merry’s man just forces her to admit what she doesn’t want to, that she’s in love with him—before she lands safely in his arms. If this central theme is a bit disturbing, on the whole this is an amusingly written story with one slightly complex character, anyway, even if she’s cut off at the knees in the end. You could certainly do a lot worse than Hollywood Nurse, who’s worth the drive up Mulholland Boulevard.

Monday, November 16, 2020

A Nurse for Dr. Sterling

By Ruth MacLeod, ©1962

Young and idealistic Janet Raleigh, fresh out of an exclusive school, found herself bored by the shallow pleasures of high society. Seeking something to fill her life and give it meaning, she chose nursing as her career. To her amazement she found that her wealth and background created an unexpected barrier. The doctor she loved doubted her sincerity and patronized her; her supervisor questioned her conduct and humiliated her; and then came the brutal attack that put her very life in danger.

GRADE: B+

BEST QUOTES:

“I hurt so! Kiss me and make it well!”

“Please, nurse … I’m going to die! Give me just one kiss to take with me—”

“Janet, you don’t want to be a nurse! You’ll have to do awful things! As a nurse you’d have to make hundreds of beds, and bathe all sorts of dirty people, empty bedpans and emesis basis, and listen to people whine about their aches and pains!”

REVIEW:
Imagine my horror when, arriving at the house we’d rented for a long weekend of walking in the apple orchard and reading on the couch, I discovered I had left my nurse novels at home! What to do, what to do? Well, thankfully this is the era of the e-book, and I was actually able to find a handful of actual nurse e-novels out there, including—imagine my surprise!—The Nurse Novel Megapack of four novels, including three I hadn’t read yet (actually, I knocked off two of them over the weekend, so now I’ve just one left). Coming soon, a blog page listing other nurse e-books, should you happen to find yourself in a similar horrifying predicament, dear reader!

Anyway, A Nurse for Dr. Sterling is a curious choice for a curated selection of nurse novels, because it in my opinion crosses over the line of true VNRN just a smidge. The problem here is that most of the  book is told from the point of view of Dr. David Sterling; nurse Janet Raleigh anchors only about a third of it, despite what the back-cover blurb suggests (and in this case, the blurb errs on a number of points, so beware!). When we meet him, Dr. Sterling is fleeing a malpractice suit he’d lost—he had not diagnosed a terminal brain cancer in a man who had demonstrated few vague symptoms, so though it wasn’t really his fault, most of his patients had left him and he’d fled town and the blot on his reputation to come to Las Lomas, California, an actual town on Monterey Bay.

He’s been hired by his old acquaintance Dr. Graham Burns, who had dumped his excellent, dependable, strong, smart wife Mildred, who had supported him during his up-and-coming years, for a young vixen half his age. Mildred’s gone on without him and is now superintendent of nurses, while Coralee is making passes at David from about the first minute they meet. David is determined not to wreck the marriage of his old friend and his second chance, but Coralee is a very determined young lady!

What’s interesting about her as a character, however, is that she has an awful voice, and we are reminded of this repeatedly, “a tone that had neither resonance nor depth. If he had heard her first on the telephone, David thought, he’d have pictured her as a dull, drab, dishwater blonde, probably chewing gum.” Mildred, on the other hand, “wasn’t a beautiful woman, but her personality made looks unimportant,” while Coralee seems to be the opposite. “I think she’s beautiful,” David admits of Coralee, “and would be even more so if her voice matched. As a person, however, I wouldn’t stack her up against Mildred at all.” It’s an unusual take in a VNRN, that personality outweighs looks; where will this come out in the end?

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, we learn about Janet Raleigh, a nursing student who has left her privileged background because “I want to do something important, she thought; not just to keep occupied, but to make my life count for something.” Under the withering eye of Nurse Daisy Andrews, a 40-year-old spinster battle axe who does not deserve her name (or the nickname Dizzy, which the girls have given her, tee hee!), however, Janet is losing her resolve, as Nurse Andrews bawls Janet out in front of the doctors on numerous occasions (but winning her the sympathy and interest of one Dr. David Sterling, so it isn’t all bad!). One day poor Janet is given the difficult task of bathing the most difficult patient on the ward, 19-year-old Archie Crane, who is not recovering from his burst appendix eight weeks ago. He refuses to cooperate with the sponge bath until Janet kisses him, which she does only after he has wrapped himself around her and refused to let go.

The bastard tells another nurse of his exploits, and Janet is bawled out yet again by Nurse Andrews. She’s ready to quit, until wise Mildred asks Janet to write down all the reasons she wanted to become a nurse and why now she wants to quit—and when one page is full of scribbling and the other has only Nurse Andrews’ name on it, Janet is ready to get with the program. Mildred sends her on her way with some kindly advice: As a student nurse, even if her superior is unfair, “in respect for her professional knowledge and standing, you follow her orders meticulously, listen carefully to all she says, refraining from comment or retort if you don’t agree. You accept her criticism gracefully, knowing it’s for your own benefit eventually.” Initially I was a little bothered that the bully was going to triumph, but I should have trusted Mildred—two weeks later, she demotes Nurse Andrews from head nurse to assist in the OR. (Of course, we astute VNRN readers see the writing on the wall with this move!)

On the lam from Coralee, David asks Janet to go out with him, and she agrees. “Janet was an easy girl to be with, David reflected. She didn’t make demands, and was at ease in any social situation. It’s her poise that makes her so darned attractive, he thought, watching her.” Soon the pair are seeing each other almost every night, but that doesn’t stop Coralee, who literally chases David around the golf course when every shot she hits lands 10 feet from David’s ball. The woman could have out-whacked Louise Suggs (a neglected golf giant who beat Sam Snead on a par-three course in 1961, correctly arguing that what they lacked in driving distance, women could make up in the short game). When he turns down her forty-ninth pass in the sand trap of the 14th hole, Coralee almost slugs David in the head with her niblick, but Graham saves her from becoming a murderess by dropping with what appears to be a heart attack. Dr. David Sterling knows better, however, and diagnoses a cardiac tumor, and never mind how ridiculously rare those are, because he’s already correctly diagnosed masher Archie Crane with a liver abscess. 

In the interim, David cannot commit to Janet, so she foolishly accepts a date with Archie, and her date with Archie goes horribly awry when he proves that his behavior in the hospital was, far from an aberration, just the tip of the iceberg when he drives her to Rocky Dell Park and assaults her, eventually pushing her off a cliff after he’d thrown her to the ground and she’d bashed him on the head with a rock. Knocked unconscious, she comes to only to find he’s fled the scene, leaving her to flag down a passing car to get home. She’s two hours late for curfew at the nurse’s dorm, and there’s Nurse Andrews, all full of slut-shaming. To the high credit of all her friends, everyone who hears the story wants Janet to call the police, but she resists—and then it turns out she’s suffering a subdural hematoma and needs immediate brain surgery! The surgeons, of whom David of course is one, are scrubbed and boring holes in Janet’s skull when Graham drops of another attack, and David steps up and completes the surgery. Does he get any thanks? Well, Janet’s grateful, but Nurse Andrews is livid because David is not a brain surgeon! In revenge, she’s ready to testify on behalf of Archie Crane in the assault trial, pulling out what she calls David’s affair with Coralee—what this has to do with the assault is beyond me—as it’s her opinion that Janet asked to be attacked at the park after her scandalous behavoir, being attacked at the hospital. But she’ll withhold her testimony if Janet agrees to resign—that’s one hell of a grudge!

But before Andrews has the chance to crush the pair like little bugs, Graham finally agrees to exploratory cardiac surgery if David will do it, as it seems he can do anything except the dishes. Andrews is assisting in the surgery, and—you guessed it—hands David the wrong drug when Graham’s blood pressure tanks. David manages to pull Graham away from the Grim Reaper with open-heart massage, and Andrews flies out of the OR and commits suicide in the scrub room, injecting her own heart with the same incorrect drug she’d handed David, one of the more spectacular VNRN flame-outs I’ve ever witnessed. So everyone’s reputation is saved, and now it’s just for David to come to his senses and propose to Janet. Also for Graham to come out of surgery to find that Coralee has left him and that Mildred, bless her, will take the louse back. So happy endings for all.

This book has strong women characters in Mildred and Janet, women whose character is more important than their looks; Coralee, who wins big in the latter department, is the loser in the end. I did appreciate her dramatic presence, though, as I did Nurse Andrews. I also found some wisdom in the book, in the advise that Mildred gives Janet about accepting criticism, and also in passages in which it’s suggested that Archie is faking his illness: “I believe it’s a mistake,” David says, “to ascribe illness to neurosis before every physical source is thoroughly checked,” which is a maxim still very true today and of which I’ve needed to remind myself on occasion. But while it has a lot to recommend it, I just didn’t love this book—my beef with it being that it’s mostly about David Sterling, and the writing, though it had some interesting ideas, just didn’t sparkle enough to make an A-grade book. It’s worth a read, though, so if you have the chance to spend the afternoon with David Sterling’s nurse, take it.

Saturday, November 7, 2020

One String for Nurse Bow

By Joyce Dingwell, ©1969

The twelve young graduate nurses were waiting eagerly to see what glamorous jobs were to be allotted to them, and none was more eager than Charlotte Bow. And to say that she was appalled at the prospect of being sent to Binkabunkacarrawirrawarrawillapillimundi, in the heart of the Australian Northern Territory, was putting it mildly!

GRADE: C+

REVIEW:
Nurse Charlotte Bow is graduating from a training program with the Farflung Nursing Association, which sends nurses into remote areas for a term. The day the assignments are announced, everyone is so excited to find out where they will be sent! Mostly, it seems, because they are really looking for husbands: “She’s as good as married right now, resented Charlotte,” after a colleague was posted to an assignment as the only woman on an island of 80 men. Poor Charlotte, however, wins the assignment to—here’s the joke of a name—Binkabunkacarrawirrawarrawillapillimundi, way Down Under. “They had all agreed that if they got that draw, they would blow out their dedication lamps there and then,” because it’s “too farflung,” but mostly the problem seems to be that there are not going to be many men, or white men, anyway. The guy on whose farm the hospital is located is called Brother Seb, and another hilarious joke is that Charlotte thinks he is a monk sworn to celibacy, though this is cleared up on page 29.

The third joke we’re subjected to is that every man who meets Charlotte asks her about her strings, an apparent reference to an apparently outdated saying (I’d certainly never heard of it) “a string to your bow”; which means, “If someone has more than one string to their bow, they have more than one ability or thing they can use if the first one they try is not successful,” here “thing” signifying “man.” It turns out that almost every man she meets is another string for her, e.g. Tony the teacher, Dr. Jamie Carley, and prospector Jeff Wright. Not Seb, though, ha ha! “Charlotte scoffed, a string! Brother Seb!” And, we’re told, the feeling is mutual: “He was not even aware of her other than as the matron of his clinic. He did not understand strings for bows.” We’ll see about that!

The book is a fairly mundane plod through the ups and downs of life in the outback, including a typhoid epidemic, an earthquake, an indigenous woman who delivers quadruplets and keeps them—in this backward narrative, native tradition has parents abandoning all but one of multiple births, I’m sorry to report—and delivering a small herd of cattle overland through the bush. None of it is terrifically riveting, and the condescension toward the indigenous people, if not the most egregious I’ve met in a VNRN, is uncomfortable at best (the children are always referred to as “pickaninnies,” for starters), so there’s another donation to the American Indian College Fund.

One thing I did appreciate was Charlotte’s ability to stand up for herself. Though she’s a brand new  nurse, she manages to meet each crisis with relative aplomb and even success. She also expresses outrage at some of Seb’s declarations, such as when Charlotte finds that a native woman has been beaten by her husband. Seb calls the bruise “nothing serious,” and when Charlotte protests, he insists that “a bashing and a thrashing” is indeed off limits, but a “spank-bruise” of the “wifely spank variety” is OK, and Seb, who speaks the native language, tells the husband “it was not good to hit very hard,” and that he should “give it next time where it didn’t show.” Charlotte is spluttering with rage, but in the end, Seb just says that Charlotte herself was not spanked enough and that’s the end of the conversation, leaving Seb with the apparent upper hand. So even if she is right, the story does not come down on her side.

On Charlotte’s less admirable traits is her complete inability to see the obvious. She doesn’t understand when first Dr. Jamie and then Tony say they are no longer wooing Charlotte because there is “one too many, which is a whole lot too many. In fact it closes the subject, doesn’t it?” Dr. Jamie explains. But Charlotte can’t figure out what he means. “Won’t someone please enlighten me?” she asks Tony. “Ask Sebastopol Brown,” Tony says, and she still doesn’t get it. Then, though Seb has asked the friars at the nearby mission if they can perform marriages, Charlotte doesn’t  figure out why Seb, gored by a bull in the bush, is refusing to go to the nearby mission for medical care. “I vowed that the next time [I went to the mission] it was to … it was for … it was …” but no pennies are dropping for the otherwise capable Charlotte. At least, as the only healthcare practitioner for hundreds of kilometers, we know she won’t be quitting her job as a nurse when she and Seb eventually get things sorted. The prose is pleasant enough, but there was nothing for the Best Quotes section, and the lame jokes about the endless name and the strings quickly grew flat, if they ever had any dimension, with repeated pounding. In the end, if not the worst VNRN I’ve read, One String is a one-note story without a lot of life to it.

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Nurse Jess

By Joyce Dingwell, ©1959

Margaret South was the most efficient, most dedicated nurse at the Lady Belinda Hospital for Specialized Nursing of Premature Babies. Professor Gink was the most dedicated, most celebrated authority on baby-care in Australia. To Jess they seemed an ideally suited couple, and she began to plot accordingly. And then, far too late it seemed, she discovered that she had fallen in love with the Professor herself.

GRADE: B

REVIEW:

Nurse Jessamine Barlow has such a mouthful of a name that when she gets to her fellowship after graduating from nursing school she is shortened to Jess. She hails from a remote island that is on the brink of transforming into a tourist mecca, and her parents, who run a small hotel, are expanding to meet the boom, though everyone has mixed feelings about it, including the native staff, who have gone on walkabout, what native Australians apparently call a long hiking holiday, with no definite date of return.

At her hospital, Jess is learning all about premature babies and how to care for them, which means hardly ever touching them and feeding them formula and not breastmilk. Some of her patients die quietly offscreen; she comes back to their cribs to find them empty. It’s difficult work, and she naturally feels like a failure, especially compared to her best friend from nursing school who is also on the same fellowship, Margaret South. Early on Jess meets Professor Dr. Gink, whom she mistakes for a parent, and offers him lots of helpful, naïve advice, and is later mortified when she realizes her mistake—though the professor seems charmed by her outgoing, easy manner. Naturally Jess decides that Margaret should marry Professor Gink, even though neither has expressed any interest of that sort in the other, and nor does she bother to enlighten her best friend about her schemes. So it’s a peculiar hook to hang the book on.

Of course, it’s clear to the reader that she likes the doctor and he, her. We can be somewhat relieved that it’s actually only two-thirds of the book in that Jess realizes her own feelings, but still she remains blind to his obvious reciprocal interest. VNRN heroines are not infrequently the dumbest characters in the book, years of medical training notwithstanding, and it’s an irritating gimmick.

Most of the book’s plot follows Jess’s adventures in nursing, including flying to the outback to nurse quintuplets with Professor Gink (we only learn his first name, Bartholomew, five pages from the end) and leading tours of her island’s volcano, which figures prominently in the rescuing of the island from the tourist hordes. We watch Margaret fall for Jess’s friend Barry, who had been pining from unrequited love for Jess until he met Margaret, and dumb Jess can’t see that obvious romance either. That foible again underlined, overall I can’t dislike this essentially charming book, which offers interesting writing and mild humor even if the characters outside the main pair are not deeply drawn. If not especially sophisticated, Nurse Jess is a simple pleasure, much like her title character.

 

Monday, October 26, 2020

Nurse Fairchild’s Decision

By Zillah K. Macdonald, ©1952

When she graduated from St. Agatha’s Hospital, all the other young nurses envied Corrine Fairchild. Daughter of wealth, Corrine was engaged to socialite Heathby Grant. “She has her future settled,” the girls said. “Corrine’s got herself a nice soft spot on millionaire’s row!” So as she plunged into the hard, gruelling life of a big city hospital, Corrine had to struggle against temptation to follow the path of ease and pleasure offered by her handsome fiancé—had to struggle to be true to the high calling she had chosen. And then into her life strode young Dr. John Burnette, aloof and arrogant as a Bedouin chief, who had his own plans for this warm and gifted girl. 

GRADE: C

BEST QUOTES:

“Her eyes were caught by a small panel in one of the clerestory windows. It showed Christ on the cross. Her three years in the training school made her see it with new eyes. No medication had eased the intolerable pain of the festering thorn wounds!”

“When we educate a man, we educate an individual; but when we educate a woman, we educate a family.”

“She moved nervously on her wooden chair. Bing! Her stocking snagged on a splinter. Horror struck her. A run in one’s stocking, a hair out of place—such things brought instant reproval. Would they deny her her diploma if they saw the run?”

“Oh dear, Corrine, how could you let your feet grow so? You had such beautiful feet. They’re quite ruined. It’s that dreadful nursing you insisted on doing!”


REVIEW:

When I picked up Nurse Fairchild’s Decision, I had high hopes that this would be as bad as the other books of Zillah Macdonald’s that I’ve read, to wit, Roxanne, Company Nurse and Nurse Todd’s Strange Summer. (Yes, sometimes a bad novel can be a lot of fun—love to hate and that sort of thing.) Unfortunately, though completely mediocre, this book has little of the laugh-out-loud stupidity that the others offered in abundance. But then, both those books had co-authors, so perhaps Zillah really had her partners to blame. Only time and a few more of her books will tell.

Corrine Fairchild is just graduating from nursing school with chums Clare, Betty, Barbara, Jean, Beth and Tsuneko (unfortunately painted with a racist brush, so there’s another penitent donation for me to make). Early on we’re informed that her career has caused problems between her and her mother, to whom she refers by her first name, Elsa, because “her Southern mother recognized only one career for a girl, a socially important marriage.” The marriage Elsa is banking on, now that graduation is over, is to longtime friend and beau Heathby Grant, a very wealthy neighbor who is constantly pressuring Corinne to marry him. She, unfortunately, even gives the matter a lot of thought, in classic VNRN trope: “Couldn’t she be wrong? Wouldn’t the feeling she had for him inevitably ripen into something deeper if she married him?” she wails for about the fifth time in the book. Part of her consideration of Heathby’s proposal lies in the fact that she’s fallen for another VNRN classic, the lab man whose “devotion to his beloved science excluded ordinary human feelings.” Though she does have one encounter with him—she’s delivering a message to him in the lab when the mean old nursing supervisor finds her there and threatens to report her, and Dr. Burnette saves her by telling the supervisor that they’re engaged—but outside of that weird meeting she’s mostly just peering hopefully around corners or watching miserably as his white coat disappears onto the elevator. “He had been on the floor, and he had not waited to talk to her! It was as if he were deliberately avoiding her.” You can see what the attraction is.

Other curiosities lie in the rumors that Dr. Burnette was kicked out of the army, and that the family he grew up with—he’s an orphan—doesn’t like him much and so taint his reputation with innuendo. Some even suggest that he’s the one who is breaking into the narcotics cabinet and stealing the drugs! (He’s not, of course, and when the true thief is outed—a much-beloved longtime cancer patient whom Dr. Burnette thinks of as a mother—the completely benign reaction of Corinne and Dr. Burnette is rather bizarre.) Even Corinne suspects him of taking the drugs, both early and late in the book, after he’s asked her to wait three months for him, until he’s “free”—though he will tell her nothing about what the issue is. She also worries that he’s fallen for another woman, but that too is quickly brushed away with, “She did trust him,” though it’s clear that she does not, and indeed she later thinks that “this might be the end of things between them” when she tells him she’s had to report another narcotics theft.

In the end he comes to tell her the story, that he was kicked out of the army for taking an experimental drug that turned out to be a cure for a deadly tropical disease, and that he’s been taking another and, until it’s proved it won’t kill him, he can’t possibly marry Corinne, or even tell her what he’s been up to, though his secrecy is hard to understand—as is her willingness to accept it in someone who says they want to marry her.

Another odd aspect of the book is that despite her oft-stated disgust with her mother’s social climbing, she herself is a snob—it’s clear that she revels in the luxurious life she’s dipped into when she’s with Heathby: When they visit “the most exclusive club this side of Hades,” she briefly considers the sumptuous surroundings and the club motto “Up above the world, careless of men, like gods are we!” and compares it to the lives of some of her patients, including one who suffers from malnutrition—but then without another thought about it she changes in the cabana, swims at the private beach, stuffs herself and throws leftovers to the seagulls. “ ‘It’s nice to be free, away from the city crowds,’ she said as she stretched out lazily on the beach.” So much for Corinne’s conscience.

It’s hard to care for Corinne, understand her devotion to Dr. Burnette, or believe her passion for nursing—“this was not a career on which she was embarking. It was a dedication”—since she doesn’t truly seem dedicated to anything outside of her unswerving pursuit of a man she’s barely spoken to, and who doesn’t seem capable of human interaction, much less honest communication. Whatever Corinne Fairchild’s decision was—that’s not really clear either—it’s not a bad decision on the reader’s part to give this book a miss.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Resident Nurse

By Frances Dean Hancock, ©1966 

Mark Lennon wanted to marry Nurse Lyle Mackey and take her away to Mexico. But Lyle, not sure she really loved the young architect, kept putting him off. Besides, she enjoyed taking care of the twenty elderly women “guests” at Harewood House. It was a dream job. The dream became a nightmare, however, when one of the guests reported a valuable ring missing. When Lyle found the ring, under “mysterious” circumstances, ugly rumors began. Still, no one would have seriously suspected her of theft if Dr. Tom Blake hadn’t encouraged the idea. Lyle wondered why he hated her so much … perhaps because she’d refused to date him after he’d tricked her into accompanying him to a gambling house? Then the ring vanished again, and this time unfounded suspicion drove Lyle out of Harewood—heartsick, wondering if she would ever be able to clear her name …

GRADE: C-

BEST QUOTES:

“I hate middle-aged people. Youth is glorious and old age is compensating.” 

“Lyle sometimes suspected that she would have been more enthusiastic about him if her parents had been less so.”

“Sometimes I feel like beating you and wonder why I’m so much in love with you with so little encouragement.”

“It’s the rich old women she feels sorry for. In poor or middle-class homes the old women have the satisfaction of still being useful as baby sitters or helping with the housework, and they know their children aren’t tolerating them for the sake of legacies, because they have nothing to leave.”

“Being a good-natured woman, she bit into a caviar sandwich to restrain herself from making any comment about people who had never heard of the apostolic succession.”

“I’ve seen a lot of girls wearing their hair like that. Usually they’re accompanied by men with beards.”

“Oh, you and your ethics.”

“When you’re older you’ll find out that many times you will be credited with virtues you don’t deserve and with faults that you never dreamed of.”

REVIEW:

Lyle Mackey works as a nurse at Harewood House, a private residence for 20 wealthy old women who intend to live out their lives there, a sort of early assisted living facility. She loves her work because for the most part the old gals are fairly healthy and only need routine pills and maybe a back rub now and then—working at the hospital had been a difficult, low-paying job, and she was glad to be out of it. Her boyfriend, Mark Lennon, relentlessly pushes her to marry him, and makes sneering remarks about the Old Dears. “ ‘I can just see you passing out the sleeping pills and the tranquilizers and the cathartics and diuretics, and so on.’ Mark’s mouth twisted in disgust.” He’s got no pity for the “selfish old biddies thinking only of prolonging their useless lives,” although I’m not exactly sure what he thinks the alternative is, and what exactly any of us are doing every minute? She’s just wasting time at her job, he tells her. “You could do better—marrying me, for example,” he says. Right. So exactly no one is sorry when Mark packs off to Mexico for several weeks on business. But before he leaves, he proves true to form by insisting, “When I return from this trip, either you’ll  marry me and go back there with me or we’ll just say goodbye.” If I were Lyle, I wouldn’t have made him wait weeks for his answer. At least she feels that his ultimatum “offended her sense of freedom and independence.” 

In her free time, Lyle accepts a date with Dr. Tom Blake, who is the nephew of Mattie Pringle, a Harewood House inhabitant. He’s a handsome man, but Lyle is not impressed when he takes her to a private house on their date. “He’s going to entertain me inexpensively by taking me to visit friends who are giving one of those Bohemian parties at which anyone is welcome, Lyle thought angrily.” Which seemed snobbish and odd to me, but as luck would have it, the place turns out to be a gambling parlor. Tom dumps her in a chair and heads off for the craps table, where he makes a bundle, and she makes the acquaintance of George Glyndon, who happens to be an antique dealer, Mark’s boss, and a cousin of another Harewood House resident—talk about small worlds! Eventually Tom is ready to leave, but his time with the dice has turned him into a monster, and after he insults Lyle for not enjoying gambling, he drives her home and assaults her in the car outside the front door. She slaps him hard across the ear and escapes, while he shouts, “You’ll be sorry for this, you little tramp. No one’s going to treat me like that and get away with it.”

His plan for revenge involves taking up with the other nurse at Harewood House, Mollie, and curiously Lyle says nothing at all to Mollie about her nightmare date with the creep, and her hints that she would never date Tom again only intrigue Mollie more. “I’d like to live dangerously just once,” she says, and soon she’s seeing him regularly, though it’s not clear if Tom is assaulting her too.

Then Tom’s aunt’s valuable emerald ring goes missing, and many chapters are spent looking for it. When we’ve finally forgotten all about the darned thing, it turns up in the drug cabinet—to which only Lyle, Mollie and Harewood House director, Mrs. Gaitskill, have keys. Good doobie that she is, Lyle turns the ring in to Mrs. Gaitskill, who decides they will say that the ring was found in the bookshelf. Miss Pringle is relieved to get it back—but then a few days later it’s disappeared again, and now she’s out for murder, egged on by nasty nephew Tom, who starts spreading gossip among the old ladies that Lyle stole it. Soon everyone is looking at her askance, except Mrs. Bickford, who takes her aside to tell her that she had been accused of murdering her husband years ago, but there had never been enough evidence to convict her—painting a picture that leaves you thinking that she actually did it. She tells this story to Lyle in the hope that it will help her feel better, but the next day we learn Mrs. Bickford died overnight. Did Lyle kill her? Apparently not, but why did the author?

Now with ignominy hanging over her, Lyle suddenly decides, “She was ready to marry Mark now. Then, because she was always questioning herself, she asked herself if it was love for Mark or a desire to get away from a job that no longer interested her and had become actually unpleasant.” But though she always questions herself, she doesn’t like to give any answers, and in the next sentence we’re on to some new scene. In the meantime, Tom is pressing Miss Pringle to call the police and have Lyle arrested, saying that Lyle had thrown herself at him and had stolen the ring as revenge when he had turned her down. Though Mrs. Gaitskill is smart enough to make Miss Pringle realize that police involvement in the matter will not turn out well, she nonetheless fires Lyle, truthfully pointing out that her effectiveness at the establishment is shot, though Lyle had been on the verge of quitting anyway. Naturally, now that she has been given what she was likely to take, Lyle is not so excited about it. So when Mark writes that he is coming home imminently, suddenly Lyle is madly in love: “What a fool she had been to let him go without an answer. How could she have been so stupid? She loved Mark; she had loved him almost from their first meeting. Was it some silly idea of keeping her independence? She didn’t want independence now. She wanted protection. She would marry Mark at once. Mark would take her to Mexico with him, and long before they came back, everything would be forgotten. It would solve all her problems.” Oh, absolutely, that’s true love, for sure, though we readers have seen nothing in the man to inspire anything except disgust. Mark enters stage left about five minutes later, and Lyle repeats these self-delusional statements for him, but adds, “I’ve just remembered I can’t marry you,” and tells him the whole story.

Well, you are not going to believe this, but somehow in the few minutes between landing at the airport and picking up Lyle, Mark had seen George Glyndon, who as it happens had shown Mark a remarkable emerald ring—guess whose it turns out to be? It seems that Tom Blake, who had run up huge debts at the gambling house, had stolen it the first time and used it as collateral for his debts, then won some money and gotten it back, but then lost even more money, taken the ring again, and sold it to George. In a patented Agatha Christie scene, everyone is invited to Mrs. Gaitskill’s office, where the truth is revealed. Lyle is offered her job back, and though Mrs. Gaitskill all but begs her to work for even a few days since she is now down to just one brand-new nurse who is still learning the ropes—Mollie has quit, too—Lyle turns out to be somewhat mean herself and refuses to help out, though it’s Mark who does all the speaking for her, because now that she has a man, she doesn’t need a job or a voice.

This book is a bit over-long and takes us to some odd corners, such as Mrs. Bickford’s confession and death, without ever being especially interesting or suspenseful. The angle of Tom Blake as an evil masher and jewel thief is unsatisfying because in the end, after he’s cruelly dumped Mollie and is setting off on a luxury cruise with Miss Pringle to get away for a while to put this embarrassing incident behind him, he is never punished for any of his bad behavior, but rather, as the book declares, is rewarded, because this way everyone saves face. I’m not sure why this is the most important thing, but there you have it. Lyle’s instant conversion into a smitten fiancée is not at all convincing, particularly since the book itself points out that she is likely using the marriage to run away from this upsetting situation—again, to save face. Her sudden chucking over of the independence she’d initially valued so highly to marry a man who had shown not one single redeeming feature in the first half of the book is especially maddening. I’m always curious about authors who leave us with these odd messages. Was it the times—remember, this book was written more than 50 years ago—that forced her to suggest to young women that their independence was not as important as landing a man? that sexual assault was something the victim should be ashamed of to the point of not even warning a potential future victim? that men always win, even when they are felonious assholes? Was she self-aware in the slightest about the horrible messages she was sending her readers? Or was her whole-hearted embrace of them meant to slap some sense and feminism into the young gullibles? I’m not sure that, without at least a glimmer of a clue that Lyle is aware at the end that she has made an enormous sacrifice at the altar of convention, we can ascribe the latter motive to Ms. Hancock, we can, sadly, only believe that she had drunk the Kool-Aid, and is now offering the readers a silver serving tray laden with more of the same.