By William Johnston, ©1963
Cover illustration by Robert Bonfils
You know Nurse Powell, or perhaps you’ve just seen her walking down a hospital corridor. For a nurse, she’s a bit too distracting in face and figure, but she’s tops in her profession, capable, calm, trained right down to her fingertips. You might suspect that there was a romance between her and that brilliant young doctor, and you’d be right. But did you know that simply because of one patient, her off-duty hours became a whirlpool of politics and pleasure, she forgot her professional coolness, and lost her heart completely to a completely different type of man?
“It’s a grand old name, Mary. You don’t hear it much anymore. What is it we get these days? Kims! And Tuesdays! Oh, I keep up with the fashions. A man in politics has to. He never knows when he’s goin’ to ask a wee little babe’s name of its mother and she’s goin’ to answer back, ‘Tuesday’ or ‘Kim’—and a man has to be on his toes in a situation like that. If he followed his natural inclination and asked leave to go off and throw up his supper like he felt, he’d be sure to lose the vote.”
“I always like to see young people fight. It shows they’re not each other’s rubber stamps. It shows individuality. A good fight is a good beginning. It’s a mistake to save the fighting for marriage.”
“I see you don’t have your needle with you. May I consider that a sign of peaceful intentions?”
“You don’t have to be smart. You’re a redhead.”
When a books starts off with writing that crackles, I relax a bit and smile with anticipation for what delights the rest of the book will bring. So it was with this book: Nurse Ellen Powell wakes with a premonition that the day is going to go badly, and it puts her in a funk. She’s worried that the impending doom revolves around her fiance, Dr. Dan O’Meara, who—though he has told her that he loves her—has not actually proposed. Soon she’s weeping, convinced that their relationship is over. But when she ventures into the kitchen, she finds that the coffee maker is on the fritz. Now she’s convined that this is the Bad Thing, and the wrinkles staining her brow are instantly smoothed. On to work.
There she finds that Packey Mackey, a most colorful 86-year-old politician, has been admitted for heart problems. Word on the street is that he’s actually just trying to duck testifying before a grand jury on a corruption charge, for stealing from the Welfare Fund and lining his own pockets. In the hospital, Packey’s health and treatment is being very carefully managed by none other than Dr. O’Meara. Dan is convinced that Packey is actually sick, and is running him through a complete workup, despite pressure to discharge Packey so he can face the music before the election and presumably be brought down instead of habitually returned to office by his loyal constituents. Got all that?
When she’s not caring for Packey, Ellen just can’t seem to stop herself from quarreling with Dan, though she never comes out and tells him what is really upsetting her. He assures her that he loves her, but that’s not enough for her—but she refuses to discuss it. Instead they head off to meet Neal Conlon, who is running against Packey in the upcoming election and also happens to be an old boyhood acquaintance of Dan’s—you couldn’t really call them friends. After this meeting, in one of their fights, Ellen declares she is going to work on Neal’s campaign every night, and how does Dan like that? “You’re a big girl now—you can think for yourself,” he says, admirably, despite all evidence to the contrary. So off she goes to Neal’s office, where she is immersed in his idealism and excitement. There she watches him threaten people with what will happen if they vote for Packey. And submits when he pressures her for information about Packey’s medical condition. “When we do wrong we’re doing it so that weventually we can do right,” he explains, pulling her close and holding her hand. Oh, OK, Neal! So when he starts kissing her, she’s swept off her feet, suddenly believing that she’s in love with Neal as well as Dan. And when Neal presses her to pump Dan for information too, she wonders about his seeming so shallow and opportunistic, that “there was little Neal would no do to get what he wanted”—yet keeps on spending all her free time with Neal and fighting with Dan about what she sees as his favoritism for Packey at the expense of truth, justice, and fair elections.
If Dan won’t propose, Neal certainly will, and wants to do it on election night: “It’s got schmalz. The little old ladies will love that.” Ellen has shown little ability to see Neal’s cold-heartedness up to this point, and once he starts kissing her, she is unable to do so now. But later, when Neal snaps at Ellen because she refuses to try to convince the chief of surgery that Dan is drawing out Packey’s stay in order to protect him from the grand jury, she tries to break up with him. He talks her out of it, though: “Let me take care of you. If you have doubts about me, about us—just squash them,” he tells her. Though she waffles some more, she does end the interview by telling him she wants to take time away from him. He’s fine with that—“and if anything new happens at the hospital, call me,” he tells her. Still she’s working every night at Neal’s campaign headquarters. But after he tells her to keep her eye on one of the surgeons who will be assisting at Packey’s operation, she suddenly sees through him: “his drives—his hate for his enemies and his professed love for her—had stemmed from nothing more than his own frantic need for self-gratification.” It’s a curious conclusion to make, based on the conversation that preceded it, and ridiculously overdue, given all the other conversations that had preceded it.
Assisting at the surgery, it’s an open-and-close affair—which means only one thing, that Packey has inoperable cancer. And when it’s over, she doesn’t rush off to telephone Neal. In fact, home in her own apartment, she doesn’t even answer the phone when it rings all night. A few days later, though, when Neal calls her to come down to headquarters and celebrate, she pulls on an off-the-shoulder cocktail dress and heads downtown, long enough to break up with Neal for good. Then she just has to make up with Dan and we can close the book.
I loved the writing in this book, and the political machinations—even more complicated than I have given you here—are not easy wrong-or-right situations, but shades of gray that give you something to think about. I would have easily given this book an A grade—except I just can’t forgive how the author has treated Nurse Ellen, who is easily one of the most gullible, spineless, simple-minded heroines I have ever met. Her character was uncalled for, and it significantly depreciated this story for me. It’s still worth reading, but you’ll want to do it with a roll of Tums by your side, a remedy for the queasy feeling brought on by the fickle, pathetic Ellen Powell, RN, who doesn't deserve to have one man love her, let alone two.