Saturday, May 8, 2021

Doctor Ellen

Adèle De Leeuw, ©1944
Cover Illustration by Rudy Nappi 

Lovely Ellen Paige met a host of violent reactions every time she reaffirmed her intention of being a doctor. “It’s—well, it’s so unfeminine,” her sister Joyce said. “It’s hard for a man; it’s even harder for a woman,” kindly Dr. Seth warned. “I want a doctor—one with pants on,” complained and injured patient. “No woman should be a doctor—and you least of all,” handsome Tim Flagg fellow student, commented. The old prejudice against woman physicians was still very much alive, but Ellen waged her battle staunchly, determined to be a doctor as well as a woman—and to be accepted as both.


“What’s the idea? Trying to titillate the optic nerve unduly?”

“It must be fun to be young.”

Doctor Ellen hits the ground with a nauseating bang when our protagonist “flung back the covers and leaped out of bed” and “sang out”—first thing in the morning, mind you!—“Morning, Mums!” It’s a wonder I managed to press on to the second sentence. The ensuing pages are admittedly less alarming, but they are stuffed with the misogynist stereotypes that Ellen is battling as she begins her third year of medical school: “Do you have to wear those awfully mannish suits all the time?” Mums asks. “It’s—well, it’s so unfeminine,” says sister Joyce, who doesn’t think Ellen will ever get married if she insists on going through with this doctor thing. “Girls don’t make good doctors!” says little brother Bill, and somehow Ellen refrains from smacking his fat head. “No woman should be a doctor,” says medical student Tim Flagg, who thinks Ellen should instead be his wife: “It’s my mission in life to persuade you you’ve made a mistake.”

There’s also the institutionalized sexism, such as the fact that “the men students had automatically been enrolled in the Army, their training supervised, their tuition paid for. But the women students had to struggle along as best they could, with prospects as lean as ever and, of course, no financial aid forthcoming.” The anatomy professor takes “special delight in baiting ‘hen medics,’ in making it hard for them and quizzing them unmercifully. He addressed himself to the men; the women were their only on sufferance, and he ignored them as much as possible.”

We watch with lifted brow while Ellen allows cave man Tim to pick her up at the train station, take her to dinner and deliver her to her rooming house, all the while cheerfully submitting to his sexist inanities. Once we get to the rooming house, however, Ellen starts to redeem herself when she meets a new boarder, Frances Tyndall, with a skeptical glance of her own. “So that’s her line, is it? Little, innocent, and helpless,” Ellen thinks snarkily to herself after the girl bats her eyelashes at the dinner table, and we like her more for it. “Being homesick and terrified and appealing all within three minutes—if this was a sample of the Tyndall mind and conversation, she saw a trying year ahead.”

And, over the ensuing pages, Ellen Paige grows on you. Like the irritating Frances, “She hadn’t been easy to live with at first, but in the painful process of growing up she had endeared herself to them.” Most of the book follows Ellen in the day-to-day of school, an externship, patients, successes and failures. She befriends a nice young wannabe surgeon Andrew McKenzie, who makes a point of stopping her after a class during which she had diagnosed a patient as having a glass eye and been subjected to the ridicule of her classmates—and little appreciation when it had turned out that she was right. “That was a brilliant piece of work,” Andrew tells her, and she answers, “There weren’t any other congratulations, though,” and our hopes begin to lift that maybe Tim won’t star in the final chapter—though he does give us quite a scare at Christmas after he wins over every single person in Ellen’s family, including Joyce’s babies and the hard-boiled cook.

Early on we sense the usual tragedy-in-the-slums trope bearing down on us when Ellen complains, “What’s that matter with cities that they can’t see the sores festering in their midst? The dirt and the slums and the rottenness? It seems like working in a circle. People studying to be doctors, men inventing medicines and cures and machines and gadgets to make life better and never getting at the root of the evil, the conditions that make sick people and criminals and poverty.” After a visit to a paralyzed child who is left alone all day in the dark while her mother works, during which a rat runs over Ellen’s shoe, Ellen gets all hot and bothered, and Andrew introduces her to a reporter, and before long there are speeches and donations and political upheaval, and a lot fewer rats in town. Ellen also works to bring Easter and Christmas celebrations to the Children’s Ward, and purpose to the life of a nurse’s aide whose husband is off fighting in the war—fairly standard stuff, it must be confessed, but presented without too much treacle.

The writing is solid and occasionally humorous, and author Adele De Leeuw, an acclaimed children’s author who wrote more than fifty books, was here in mid-career. This story is not as fluffy as it could have been; there are truly tragic characters, including one very impoverished female medical student who is forced to drop out of school to care for her siblings after her mother is incapacitated by stroke, and the paralyzed girl who inspired the rat extermination crusade. The overwhelming theme of the book seems to be learning to stand on your own, to have confidence in yourself to do the right thing. “You don’t get your strength from playing to the gallery, only from yourself,” Andrew tells her, and as the last two years of medical school pass, we watch Ellen’s confidence grow out of almost-failures, out of tragedy, out of success that isn’t just luck but earned through hard work. I would love to know what prompted De Leeuw to turn out this book, which thought it must have required a great deal of research appears to have been her only attempt at medical fiction (though she wrote three nonfiction books about nurses). But if you are going to write only one VNRN, it should be, as this is, one to be proud of.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Hostage Nurse

By Jane Converse, ©1973
Cover illustration by Allan Kass 

They were the ideal couple. Jenny Cole, the pretty ash-blond nurse, and Alex Walters, the boyishly handsome intern. It would be a marriage made in heaven, their friends and relatives were certain. But suddenly, a clash of temperaments, a bitter quarrel, and the inseparable twosome became mere nodding acquaintances. Jenny was determined to put Alex out of her mind, if not her heart. And she might have succeeded if a twist of fate hadn’t thrown them together in a bizarre and terrifying adventure. Facing danger, Jenny also faced the truth about herself and what she really wanted. But would it bring her a second chance at happiness?


“If you want to be the queen, you don’t keep sniffling, understand?” 

Jenny Cole and Alex Walters have been sweethearts since high school, and have plotted out their medical careers with the plan to work together “until they decided to start a family,” when Jenny would quit working and raise their brood of young ’uns. But nursing school doesn’t take as long as medical school, so by the time Alex lands a residency in the hospital where Jenny works, she has more than a year of experience under her belt to his mere months. Unfortunately, Jenny’s found that Alex thinks that his degree is worth more than her experience. “There was no doubting that Alex had changed. Several times during his six-week service in Orthopedics, Jenny had found herself working with a short-tempered, actually arrogant taskmaster, who knew less about her department and her patients than Jenny did. Why, he behaved like a smug tyrant, overly impressed with his title, making Jenny feel more like an erring servant than an experienced member of the medical team.” Which had swiftly brought about a loud argument: When she had pointed out his disrespect, he’d retorted, “You sound like one of those bra-burning women who want to be men”—proving her point. “You’ve got some idea that M.D. spells God. Let’s just forget the whole thing,” she’d snapped back, and their engagement had ended.

Now she has a vacation, coincidentally at the same time as Alex’s, and their mutual friend Toby Woodruff, a flight attendant who hasn’t seen them recently and so is unaware of their breakup, has booked them tickets on a charter flight back home to Miami. It’s a flight full of psychics on their way to a convention, and a family of three—parents and a four-year-old boy—are the only other non-conventioneers on the flight. Unfortunately, none of the psychics had picked up on the fact that the father of the family, Louis Dalby, is a paranoid schizophrenic packing a gun and a knife who hijacks the plane, shoots co-pilot Herb Gray in the shoulder, and insists that everyone call him “your majesty.” Louis wants the plane to be taken to Dalbania, a fabulous island where he is king and everyone else is his slave, located somewhere in the Bahamas. He allows the plane to touch down in Miami long enough to let off the psychics and take on fuel, then they’re off again to this chimerical destination.

Landing on a tiny, virtually uninhabited island, you’d think something interesting might happen, but no such luck. Here we find no Gilligan, no Tom Hanks and Wilson, not even Lord of the Flies—just a lot of fretting, waiting around, and stupid conversation with Louis’ equally nutty wife Iva. We also watch Jenny and Alex tend the dwindling Herb Gray while managing to keep up their pathetic squabbling even in this supposedly tense situation, to such an extent that Toby finally snaps, “You’re worse than children! I didn’t know they issued M.D.’s and R.N.’s to petulant six-year-olds.”

As the plot drags on, the pilot, Paul Farrar, and Alex manage to wrestle the gun away from Louis not once but twice, and still Louis manages to get it back every time. There’s a fruitless walk to a cabin on the other side of the island that holds only an old woman and another four-year-old kid without a radio or means of communication beyond a mail boat that isn’t due for six days, so that’s the end of that, and they walk back to the plane and King Louis. There’s also a lot of talk about removing the bullet from Herb’s shoulder, which in current medical practice is not done unless it’s endangering some internal organ or blood vessel, and then there’s the infection in Herb’s wound that’s slowly killing him, even though a bullet leaves a gun with such heat that it—and the wound it creates—are rendered sterile, so bullet wounds do not require antibiotics. Honestly, toward the end you start to wish King Louis just shoot them all, if only to put this dull book out of its misery.

Eventually, though, the bunch is magically rescued through no apparent effort of their own, though they’ve already discussed how unlikely it would be to find the wreckage, which has slid into the jungle, among the hundreds of islands in the Caribbean. I am sorry to report that their brush with death has not changed Alex any: “Come here, glorified maid,” he says to Jenny, who somehow manages to avoid throwing a fistful of sand into his face and instead falls blissfully into his arms. An equally disappointing side plot involves the romance between Paul Grey and “Stewardess” Toby, which is on the rocks because Toby does not want to have children. “I’ve got a million other things I want to do,” she explains. “Places I want to see. You know? And I’m not going to do or see anything tied up in some crummy suburban house, washing diapers or separating a couple of battling monsters.” Yet she, like Jenny, is somehow won over by this experience, or more specifically, by Louis’ son Tad—who somewhat tragically is flown off with his mother at the book’s end, without any mention whatsoever of involving the DCF—“What chance has Tad got with Iva for a parent? It breaks your heart,” Jenny says, adding that Toby “probably will never see him again. And it’s too bad. They needed each other, I think.” Never mind, now Toby is apparently ready to sign up to have her own “bawling little wet-pantsed creature” with Paul. So in the end, what we have is a dull story that offers distressing outcomes for our two heroines. Toward the end of the book, as Louis is becoming increasingly hysterical, his wife, master of the understatement, remarks, “I wish Louie wouldn’t do stuff like this. It’s kinda scary.” I have to say, I know exactly how she feels, but in my case, I’m wishing it about author Jane Converse, who shouldn’t subject us to this sort of drivel.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

The Nurse’s Dilemma

By Vera Cleaver, ©1966
Cover illustration by Mort Engel

“I’d better warn you, Nurse … I’m going to marry Stephen Templeton—so forget any ideas you may have in that line. I’m not ashamed of my money—I like it and I like what it can buy.” Helen Harrison’s arrogance infuriated Nurse Jean Wheaton, but she was comforted by the memory of the handsome surgeon’s embrace. “I doubt very much if you’ll buy Dr. Templeton. Is that all you wanted to tell me?” “I just thought I’d warn you,” Helen said. “Steve is not the man to settle for … second best.” Burning with fury, Jean went to meet Dr. Stephen Templeton. Second best! Anyway, I have no intention of falling in love with him—or have I …? A beautiful young nurse, a rich society girl, and a handsome surgeon become involved in a triangle that rocks Monroe General Hospital.


“I was talking to a guy this afternoon who drives a truck for a living. He told me he makes four dollars an hour. We could live on four dollars an hour, couldn’t we?”

“I’m going to wear my new white sweater and my new black pants, and when you see how handsome and virile I look whizzing around on my new silver skates with the wind in my hair and a song on my lips, you’ll fall to your knees and entreat me to marry you immediately. 

It is with great sorrow that I tell you that The Nurse’s Dilemma is the only nurse novel that Vera Cleaver ever wrote. It was her first, written when she was 47, and thereafter she turned her focus to books for young adults, mostly written in partnership with her husband Bill Cleaver; you may have heard of their third book together, Where the Lillies Bloom, which was written in 1969 and was a National Book Award finalist.

But here we have a truly remarkable story, of Nurse Jean Wheaton, who is an excellent surgical nurse. “If you’re just routinely good, you wait for the surgeon to ask for the instruments. If you’re more than good—if you’re standing there moving, breathing, feeling with him—you anticipate. You know ahead of time and you act … You are trained and, more than that, there is a built-in intuition in you, so you don’t wait for him to ask. You give. It’s a little like dancing with a stranger.” She’s the preferred scrub of Dr. Stephen Templeton, who likes everything just so, and who has carefully plotted out his life. “Dr. Templeton wants prestige in his life,” she tells her roommate Willow. “You can tell that from the way he speaks and dresses and acts. He graduated from one of the best schools in the East. He’s not going to throw all that away now.” His plans to obtain nothing but the classiest mean, Jean suspects, that she isn’t high on his list of suitable dates.

Nonetheless, he accepts Jean’s invitation to visit her raucous family in the hills for Christmas, and upon seeing him in her messy home, she realizes that she’s blown it. “When we all trooped in and took our places, and I saw Stephen Templeton look at it, I knew that the table covering should have been white cloth, that I should have somehow managed matching napkins, that the thick restaurant china my father had bought at an auction should never have been considered for such an occasion ... that it and all of us were in our element, but not in Dr. Templeton’s.” But he’s still human underneath his armor of plans, and he falls in love with Jean anyway. He’s announced his engagement to Helen Harrison, a society snob, but tells Jean he’s going to break it off with her. Unfortunately, Helen beats him to the punch and tells him that she has tuberculosis, so now we have the slightly stale situation of a couple staying together because of tragic illness. “We have to be sensible. And we have to do the honorable thing,” Stephen tells Jean, and she agrees. She packs off to a new job 600 miles away while Helen packs off to a sanitorium.

Months pass, and then there’s a knock at the door: Helen has hired a detective to find Jean, and sends a summons. She’s going to die, she tells Jean, and though Jean the trained nurse determinedly denies the truth, Helen refuses to have it, and frankly acknowledges, “My marriage to Stephen wouldn’t have been successful. It would have flopped because Stephen is in love with you.”

From here the story is fairly predictable, but what I couldn’t have predicted was how fine and how truly original the writing, how honest the emotions, how lovely the characters. The story has an actual heart. The characters are admittedly flawed, but in the end, they realize their failings and promise genuine growth, together, as a real honest love should. The medicine is detailed and mostly accurate, showing that Vera Cleaver put in a lot of time at the library for this one. This book demands a special niche on your VNRN bookshelf as a rare story that actually deserves to be read a second time, with a tear that it has no sisters, but a relieved smile that we have the remarkable gift of this one.

Monday, April 5, 2021

A Prize for Nurse Darci

By Suzanne Roberts

Darci Betton loved being a nurse, but at the writers’ conference she discovered a glamorous new world. It almost made her forget Dr. Mark Garrett whose last angry words were branded on her heart. When Jerome Sinclair, the famous writer and Darci’s private idol, showed more than a passing interest, Darci’s new world seemed perfect. Would a new love help her forget the old?


“You wouldn’t want us coming on duty without our coffee, would you doctor? We might give a heart stimulant to that patient who sneaks liquor into his room, and then you’d really have something to complain about.” 

“I’m not even so sure it’s a good thing for the patients to read poetry. Maybe they ought to be resting instead of reading.”

“Being around you makes me want to go out and get myself a job in a munitions factory. I feel as if I’d like to help murder the human race, instead of trying to help it.”

“Look here, I was about to kiss you. And suddenly you’re telling me I ought to have X-rays or something! What kind of a romance is this, for Pete’s sake?”

“Darci almost wished she had fainted. It would have been so nice to be in his arms and be carried to the couch and worried about.”

I will confess that I’ve had this book on my shelf for some time but have been loath to pick it up, because my experience with Suzanne Roberts has not been particularly enjoyable. Unfortunately, she’s written at least 14 nurse novels, of which I’ve endured only half (every one of them earning a C grade of some sort), and though it’s all right for you to steer clear, it’s my self-appointed job to plow through these bombs—and hopefully my pain will save you some. To that end, let this stand as a warning to avoid drippy Darci Anne Betton, who is a shallow, spineless, insipid patsy. 

She is, though, a very dedicated nurse, and when the new ward resident, Dr. Mark Garrett, shows up, she’s determined to impress him. But he’s a mean, nasty tyrant who has imposed a slate of new rules for the floor—including a three-minute time limit for coffee breaks, even though it takes five minutes to get from the 10th floor ward to the cafeteria. Of course, it’s utterly unrealistic that a doctor could have the authority to insist on these things, and this one’s only a resident, not even an attending! Every nurse on the floor is putting in for transfers except Darci, who thinks, “When he doesn’t look angry—he has the nicest mouth”—the trouble being that he always looks angry.

The good news is that she’s won a story-writing contest, and the prize is free tuition at a writer’s conference, which miraculously falls on exactly the same two weeks as her upcoming vacation. The big draw for the conference is famous but fading writer Jerry Sinclair, who phones Darci at 3:00 a.m. to ask her to pick him up at the airport and have dinner with him. Instead of banging down the receiver on the inconsiderate, selfish ass, “She closed her eyes, joy going through her. ‘I’ll meet your plane, Mr. Sinclair,’ she said eagerly.”

Meeting the man, it is clear that he is a horror show—for starters, he doesn’t let her drive her own car. He’s a slimy type out to use Darci for his own purposes, and it’s certainly not hard to imagine why a writer might be pumping this naïve young woman for details about working in a hospital. Darci, curiously, sees it too—but when he takes her parking, “it might have been pure feminine instinct that made Darci sit very still, not talking, her hand as quiet as a tame bird, there in Jerry’s.” We are not surprised to find, then, that she absolutely cannot say no to the man, and instead foolishly seems to be talking herself into falling in love with him: “Am I falling in love with him? And, she wondered, if this was love. She had even mentioned the possibility that she might be in love. At the time, she had felt a little bit foolish. But now she wasn’t sorry at all she had written to her girlfriend and admitted she might be in love. Because right now, at this very moment, whatever it was she was feeling was either love or hero worship.”

Whatever it was, Jerry quickly proves himself deserving of neither, as he monopolizes her time, manipulates and guilts her into seeing him, and repeatedly insists he’s completely dependent on Darci—and he treats the conference students cruelly and unprofessionally, as well. “I was shook up because I’d phoned you and you didn’t answer my calls. That made me everything seem so—hopeless,” the stalker tells her, jealous of the time she spent writing a letter to her roommate. “Just stay with me. I need you, little girl.” Rather than run to the police department and file for a restraining order, Darci the Dope thinks, “He was probably one of the most intelligent and fascinating men in the world. Wasn’t it true that what she had was the beginning of a very hard crush on this man? And wasn’t it also true that their beloved image of Jerry had begun to fade?” Because Darci always wants to have everything both ways, even fantasizing about grumpy Dr. Garrett, who suddenly “seemed both challenging and exciting.” She has two assholes in her life, and “they were both strangely secretive and moody, and yet, Darci felt an odd tenderness and warmth towards both of them.”

As Jerry pumps her harder for details about the hospital, even Darci starts to edge away—but when the conference ends, Jerry cons her into allowing him to move to her hometown and show him around the hospital. She fears Jerry is writing an expose about the hospital, but nonetheless dutifully trots him around the hospital and introduces him to everyone. Lo and behold, Jerry eventually admits he is writing a scandalous tell-all. “Darci felt an odd sensation of fear go through her. She felt like running from Jerry in that moment and yet, he wasn’t really mean or cruel, or even cunning.” I’m not sure who she’s fooling, because we have seen him be all these things—frankly, seldom is he anything else.

Since she came home lugging Jerry Sinclair with her, Dr. Garrett has been especially frosty. But that never stops Darci—suddenly “she was in love with him. She was in love with that cold, angry man who could be so gentle with a patient but so unbending with the girl who worked side by side with him all day long.” Nurse Darci Betton is a bona fide nut case. But Mark won’t date her, so she keeps going out with her other lunatic. In his room, waiting for Jerry while he showers before another of their dates, she finds his manuscript and reads the lurid tell-all he’s written, which includes a near-miss medication error of her roommate’s, and the suggestion that at a prior job Mark’s negligence had killed a patient. Who saw that coming? Again proving herself psychotic, she wonders, “Could she still go on loving Mark if what Jerry had written was true? […] Darci tried to think more kindly of Jerry.” Really, this woman should just start dating axe murderers and be done with it.

She runs to Mark’s apartment to warn him and he tells her the story Jerry has uncovered—as an intern he had witnessed a car crash, pulled a victim from the wreckage, and the woman had died shortly afterward. This is the sort of “scandal” that frequently befalls people in nurse novels—they can’t in any way be blamed for it, but the hospital turns their actions into a terrible crime, making it a pathetic cop out. The pair end up kissing, and the next day Darci is a wreck, because “the two of them made rounds, attended patients, subbed in Emergency during noon time, and nothing at all was said. No plans were made for the future.” Apparently one kiss means it’s time to start picking out china patterns—not in the coming months, but immediately, and never mind the important work they should be concentrating on. “How can I talk to you about marrying me?” Mark rightfully asks, less than 24 hours after their first kiss—even if “it was a stop-the-world kind of kiss.”

Darci is in love with love, and getting married is her main objective—she’ll talk herself into the first ogre that comes along, and we should not be surprised, because on page three of this book we’re told “Neither girl was in love, but, of course, both of them hoped to be. Falling in love at the Center was something just about every nurse did.” Even her “plump” roommate is planning a wedding, to a patient whose sling she’d changed a couple weeks earlier. This book paints a horrific picture of the lives of young women, not to mention marriage, and I shudder to think of all the kids who’d read this fifty years ago and imagined that this was what they were supposed to be—compliant yet grasping, blind bits of putty whose main objective was to convince a man—any man, no matter how unworthy or even insane—to slip a diamond onto her hand. This book is just depressing.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Nurse Julie of Ward Three

By Joan Callender, ©1964

Julie Doran had been very happy in the busy, peaceful atmosphere of the geriatric ward, caring for her aged patients and on the friendliest of terms with the physician-in-charge, Hal Gardiner. But everything changed for the worse when Annette marsh came on in charge of the ward. Was it Julie’s fault—and if so, what she to do about it?


“If she did not marry, she would undoubtedly reach the heights of her profession.” 

“For one preparing to cope with Dr. Blake, a little trouble with Mrs. Forrester seemed like child’s play. The hazards of life on Ward Three were as nothing compared with the hazards of Life.”

“Having thus made up her mind, in what she in imagined was a perfectly calm and logical manner, to throw away her career and her opportunities to be near the man she loved, she found she had nothing to do for the moment.”

“You look different. Not tired, exactly, but subdued. Has anyone been subduing you?”

“Surely he must have his doubts and fears, like everyone else? Even Matron had her moments of anxiety, which she relieved by talking to her pet cat. Perhaps Doctor Gardiner kept goldfish, or something. Perhaps he sat in an easy chair and watched them swimming round and round in a huge glass bowl. Perhaps he confided in Annette. Personally, she would have preferred the goldfish.”

“She did not expect to be successful in arguing with a man with whom she could not even discuss the weather in a natural manner.”

“You won’t go all cold and haughty again, will you? My nerves wouldn’t stand it.”

“Just in time, she remembered that today she was beautiful. Beautiful people could go anywhere.”

“It’s a pity you have to change into your uniform. That dress would make any patient feel better.”

“You see what I mean, Gill? That’s exactly how you behave when you’re in the throes of a romance. Touchy.”

“The voice of common sense has little hope of being heard above the wild, glad music of love.”

“Weeping solved no problems. It just left ugly marks on the face and a sense of shame on the mind.”

“I must be growing disillusioned in my old age. Each batch of students seems sillier than the last, these days.”

“It was a stare which would have paralyzed a lesser man.”

When we first meet Julie Doran, she is three months out from graduation and is working on the geriatric ward. Unfortunately, her sweet aged patients have little regard for the niceties of protocol when the doctor is rounding and will insist on singing loudly in the bath, much to Julie’s consternation. But nice Dr. Hal Gardiner has visited the ward more than once and understands the old biddies. “They’ve lived too long to care about our little rules and regulations,” he says. “When you’ve been here for three years, you’ll have discovered what is important, and what is not, in this type of work.” 

Unsurprisingly, life is about to get more complicated for Julie. Motherly head nurse Crompton of the ward is the loser in a bicycle versus car encounter and is sidelined for several months, which means nurse Annette Marsh is sent up from surgery in the interim. Annette is “a remote, glamorous figure” who “made no secret of the fact that she considered most of those with whom she came into contact as being greatly inferior to herself. She could be kind, in a lofty way, and she was certainly efficient, but her manner in general was that of a queen forced among peasants.” When Julie politely remarks that she hopes Annette will enjoy work on the ward, Annette responds, “I don’t expect to.” She does not share Dr. Gardiner’s charitable attitude toward codgers: “Old people are selfish. The care for nothing but their own comfort,” she snaps. Naturally, Julie—and indeed most of the other ward staff—does not appreciate Annette’s gifts.

Another complication is her growing esteem for Dr. Gardiner. It’s a sweet crush that grows organically: First she is over-analyzing a trivial exchange for deep hidden meaning, then briefly tries to talk herself out of it (“she was glad she had discovered this weakness in herself for gray eyes. In future she would be on her guard against it”), but that doesn’t last long. “Having failed, the night before, to be sensible about Hal Gardiner, she had found such joy in not being sensible that she was no longer attempting to reason with herself. She was going to see him again soon, and if that knowledge gave her pleasure, she was doing no wrong, she told herself, in admitting it.” The wrenches in the works are: number one, Dr. Gardiner’s relationship with Annette, as it seems the pair are not complete strangers; “there was certainly an undercurrent of tension between those two. At times, they seemed to be fighting a duel of words. Did they secretly enjoy these encounters, or were they natural antagonists?” You can sense the coming misunderstanding of the relationship a mile away. Number two is Dr. Gavin Blake, who has arrived to work alongside Dr. Gardiner for a few months and thinks Julie is a plump gazelle waiting to be chased, though he leaves her cold. “She would tell him that he was embarrassing her, and that she preferred him to leave her alone. Once she had made her feelings quite clear to him, he would surely not persist.” Oh, think again, honey.

But the obvious idea of putting Gavin together with Annette occurs to Julie: Not only would this solve two of her problems at once, but the pair are perfect for each other. “They belonged together, male and female of the same breed. Physically they complemented each other, but there was something else, something in the nature of each that was partnered by the other.” Perhaps it’s that Gavin “was sometimes strangely lacking in perception of other people’s feelings,” while for her part, Annette “seemed to be incapable of understanding the feelings of other people.” (These two descriptions occur 40 pages apart, and made for a nice echo through the text.)

The crisis comes when Julie is having a bad day on the wards—one of the more senile old ladies accuses her of poisoning the boiled potatoes—and while having a good cry, she runs into Gavin, who mops her face as good friends do, but kisses her as good friends don’t. The next day, when she tells Hal she can’t go with him to the beach because her day off has been cancelled (which is the truth), he tells her he doesn’t want to go out with her any more. She is caught completely off-guard, though we are instantly certain that he witnessed the scene with Gavin. Sad and lonely, she agrees to go on platonic drives with Gavin, until the day he decides to pull the car into a secluded lane and says, “I expected you to be a little more—adult. Let’s find out just how adult you are.” Interestingly, here is one of the few times I have seen an unsolicited kiss described appropriately: “To be in his arms was to be imprisoned, to feel his mouth on hers was to suffer an assault,” Julie thinks. So what does she do? “She remained passive, waiting for him to let her go.” And he does, suggesting, “I could still change your mind. Luckily for both of us, I’ve still got a grain of sense, so I won’t do it. Persuasion is one thing, but to take advantage of someone as inexperienced as you is another,” which to me reads as if he is suggesting he could force himself on her, though I fail to comprehend how this would “change her mind.” There are more mean words after this, and only then does she fling open the car door and climb out.

A few days later she’s clubbed on the head in the dirty utility room by the crazy patient who thinks she’s being poisoned, so you imagine that this will bridge the misunderstanding between her and Hal—and it does, in a very roundabout way. The way things get pulled together in the end is, I am very sorry to say after what had heretofore been a most delightful book, abrupt, ham-handed, way too simplistic, and wildly out of character for the individual who plays the chief role in sorting everything out. But perhaps I shouldn’t have been too surprised, as Julie does on occasion behave in ways that surprise, including shouting at a patient (after she’s severely scolded another nurse for doing the same, scant pages earlier) and hurling some pretty insulting language at Annette (when she’s been subdued for most of the book, just quietly absorbing Annette’s verbal blows up to this point). Minor foibles include the fact that some points of plot are dropped (the orderly who is apparently gossiping with the patients about Julie) as are some characters (Julie’s friends Susan and Gillian), and about half the characters are only sketchily identified though they recur throughout the book, drifting in and out like ghosts in the periphery.

But any fault this book may have is more than made up for by the fabulous writing, which is frequently subtly clever and amusing, as evidenced by the lengthy list of great quotes resting atop this review. Many more lovely turns of phrase wouldn’t translate when taken out of context, such as when Julie and two of her friends are lounging by the hospital pool (!!!), and they spot Dr. Gardiner and the head nursing matron approaching. Julie is deliberately looking away, “but after a moment or two she could tell by the way her friends began to gaze blankly into space that the two had moved nearer.” The key characters are quite sharply drawn, and you really feel you know Annette, Gavin, and Hal—and Gavin is especially enjoyable. The real tragedy of the ending is that it is such a copout, and I was disappointed in author Joan Callendar for not putting in the effort to deliver us the truly stellar book that she is clearly capable of. Sadly, this appears to be the only book Ms. Callendar has published, so I cannot hope she will redeem herself in another novel. But if this book is not perfect, it nonetheless should not be overlooked.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Nurse Morgan Sees It Through

Book 4 of 4
By Rubie Saunders, ©1971 

When Broadway star Valerie Vale’s daughter entered City Hospital, the little girl became the center of her own personal drama—one that seemed doomed to end in tragedy. Marilyn Morgan was the child’s nurse, and assigned to the case was handsome, ultra-eligible Dr. Ed Clark. Desperately involved in a professional struggle to stabilize, did Ed and Marilyn realized they were growing deeply involved—with each other?


“A good aide was worth her weight in gold.”

“Isn’t she beautiful? Look at that groovy pants suit.”

“If Patty was worried about her appearance, she would be all right.”

“Oh, will this beautiful nurse and I ever be free at the same time? I might as well drink myself into a stupor and forget her.”

“I mean—how can you propose to a beautiful girl with half the hospital breathing down your neck?”

“If you’re ever going to have your own apartment, the first thing you absolutely have to have is a good recipe for meatloaf.”

“Hey, when you stop talking, you must be getting serious.”

In this, the last in the series about nurse Marilyn Morgan, we pick up essentially the same book we’ve read the last three times. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing: Marilyn and her sassy roommate, fellow nurse Marcia Goldstein, work, party, date, and hang out at their swinging bachelorette pad two blocks from City Hospital, which means that doctors and nurses are always dropping by. Here we have back again Marilyn’s old standby, Dr. Matt Evans,  who had disappeared off to Chicago for an internship in Nurse Morgan’s Triumph, but pops up here without a word about his time in the Windy City, or what his current job in the hospital is. Poor Matt is always trying to take Marilyn out, but on his one weekend off, an emergency comes up and he has to work after all—clearing the deck for super-cute Dr. Ed Clark, who is researching leukemia at City Hospital and is the hospital’s most eligible bachelor. But Marilyn just doesn’t feel like she’s ready to get married, even in her fourth book. “Your trouble is that you’ve always dated so many men at once that you don’t have time to concentrate on any one of them,” says Marcia, probably a little jealous. She shouldn’t be, though—it can be really hard work fending off the gentlemen! “He was kissing her again, and Marilyn’s thoughts were racing. If she made him stop, he would start talking about marriage. He had often in the past, and Marilyn knew he was ready at any time. But as for herself, she wasn’t sure at all.” 

At work, Marilyn has a lot going on, too. Jeff Cross, a young boy from her old Harlem neighborhood, has been bitten by a stray dog and required surgery—and may need rabies shots as well if the dog starts frothing at the mouth in the next six weeks, which it may well do, since it’s allowed to run free in the New York City park. The boy’s father is adamantly opposed to rabies shots on the grounds that they would be very painful—never mind how distressing death by rabies would be, a point no one thinks to bring up—and it’s Marilyn’s job to convince dad to go through with it. Then there’s the new nurse’s aide to break in, and giggling Patty, who spends more time on her hair and makeup than she does on her job, gives little Jeff some orange juice the morning of his surgery, which might have killed him if the anesthesiologist hadn’t caught it in time! Lastly, there’s ten-year-old Pamela Frini, whose mother Valerie Vane is a famous actress, who has been diagnosed with leukemia, and Marilyn is assigned to be the child’s nurse. At the time of this book, some leukemia patients “have lived for five years or more,” the nursing supervisor explains. Some are even “long-term survivors … who have the disease and live with it for over eleven years.” Oh boy!

The upside is that while caring for Pamela, she is working alongside Ed, and what a dreamboat! Eventually they start dating, and that’s fun! They go to a gala party for the debut of the musical that Valerie Vane is starring in—as a lion tamer, in fact—and they stay out until sunup, even though she has to work the evening shift that day, which seems like a bad idea to me! They head home only to find that Marcia, who’s been on vacation in Florida with her parents, is home a day early—sporting an engagement ring! The two women are instantly rendered insane, fleeing to the kitchen and leaving poor Ed to cool his heels in the living room and wonder, “What ever gets into females at the sight of an engagement ring?” Eventually he realizes they’ve forgotten he’s alive, and as they chatter in raptures in the other room, he slinks out of the apartment, and that, believe it or not, is the end of the book.

It’s a strange and very anticlimactic conclusion to the four-book Marilyn Morgan RN series. As frequently as we hear Marilyn say she’s not ready for marriage, it’s peculiar that we end the series with her virtual orgasm over her friend’s engagement, which is something of a mixed message. I’ve been mulling over the question of whether the heroine needs to be engaged at the end of the book to qualify as a VNRN, and I’m leaning toward no. Dating is certainly romance, and does not need to end in marriage to be such. The problem here is that there’s not much dating, either. We’re also denied the enjoyment of lifestyle scenarios that Rubie Saunders usually gives us in these novels, because what we do see is infrequent and unenthusiastic, and Marcia—frequently the life of the party in these novels—is packed off to Florida for about half the book. I don’t need to see Marilyn wind up her series with a ring on her finger, but I did expect her to go out with a bang, and I am disappointed to see her fade away with the whimper we have here.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Junior Pro

By Kate Norway (pseud. Olive Norton), ©1959

Before Lindsay Wood took up at nursing, she had been warned that it was hard work. What she hadn’t heard much about was the difficulty of steering one’s personal course. She did find someone to whom she felt she could turn for advice--but he was the resident medical officer, far out of the sphere of a lowly probationer. And she couldn’t quite understand his attitude, sometimes helpful, sometimes very much the reverse. How she coped with all her perplexities is told in a lively story with an authentic hospital atmosphere.


“I wished, while I was about it, that Sister Tutor had taught us a little less about finding our way around the buildings, and a little more about finding it round human situations. It seemed to me that nurses needed a good deal of practice in dealing with people, and I knew I didn’t have it.”

“I could eat you, darling, only I haven’t time.”

“It’s a good sign to be a little scared. Bad nurses never worry—they don’t know how.”

How lucky for me that after coming out of the first F-grade nurse novel I’ve ever read (if you must be reminded: Jolie Benoit, R.N.), I pick up such an incredible gem as Junior Pro. This book has all the hallmarks of a true great: Lots of girlfriends, witty writing that sparkles on every page, a feisty heroine, and—a rare treat—one of the best endings I’ve ever encountered. Told in the first person, the sixth such VNRN I’ve read (but the third by Olive Norton; it seems to be a favorite trick of hers), here we meet Lindsay Wood, who is just entering her first year of training to be a nurse, making her what they call in this English hospital a “junior pro.” On the eve that the “lambs” are finishing their didactic months and being sent to the wards, though, there’s a ball. Like most VNRN hospital balls, this one is momentous, here because only one man asks her to dance. “When we did get on the floor we found ourselves in the middle of a Paul Jones [a dance in which you change partners], and I lost him after about four strides. He was just tall enough to be comfortable to dance with, and I was annoyed. Nobody came to claim me, and I went back behind my pillar.” He turns up later, though, apologetic, and takes her for a drive. When he finds out she is just a brand-new student, instead of mussing her lipstick, he starts the car. “Home, Madam?” he asks, and she replies, “Home, James,” and when they arrive at the nurses’ home, “he bent his head and kissed my hand very gently, and gave it back to me as though it were something extremely fragile and very precious, instead of just thing I used to hold a tennis racquet with.”

Like many people in their first days on a new job, Lindsay lands on the wards with a splat: There is almost nothing she does right, to such an extent that her first moment of triumph is remembering to take the stairs instead of using the elevator, which is forbidden to first-years. The worst of her crimes, though, is when her chauffeur turns up on the ward dressed as the R.M.O.—that’s resident medical officer, or chief of medicine in the UK. “Good morning, James,” she says without thinking, and it turns out that it is a most serious taboo to speak to a senior medical officer when you’re only a nursing student, made even more scandalous by the fact that Dr. Findon’s first name is indeed James. But he seems to forgive her, because when it turns out that she has scored top marks in several subjects and just barely loses out on a prize given to the top student, he gives her one: a silver pin shaped like Aladdin’s—or Florence Nightingale’s—lamp, engraved “Findon prize—Nurse L. Wood.”

Over the ensuing pages we follow not exactly the most original plot line, but still a very enjoyable one as Lindsay flounders less as the days pass, tangles with Dr. Findon, goes home to visit her family on their farm in Wales, and wallows heavily in a mistake of a relationship with Dr. Jack Beresford, an incorrigible flirt who has claimed the heart of her best friend Catherine, complicating matters. But she really does like kissing Jack! Which makes her agree when he vaguely suggests that they marry, though she comes to her senses a few pages later, thinking it would be better to have Catherine than Jack—but then, dang it, he kisses her again, and she loses her head once more. And again, the next morning, when Jack comes around to plan the wedding, she insists—as she has done throughout the book—that she is going to finish her training and get her nursing degree, which will take three more years. Hearing this news, Jack “sulked.” When Catherine pins Lindsay down later on, Lindsay insists it’s over: “He made it clear, then, that he wouldn’t hear of my finishing my training before I settled down. That changed the whole thing. Because nothing and nobody is going to stop me from getting State Registered. If he isn’t satisfied with that, then it’s no go. And he isn’t.” You go, girl!

Lindsay is a heroine we can adore because she is not perfect, but she honestly works very hard and she has a good heart. She is forced to give up her beloved Findon prize pin when a misunderstanding causes her to be suspected of stealing a brooch that a patient has given her, and when months later the nursing matron says she has earned it back, Lindsay disagrees: “James still doesn’t think I come up to some standard of his own,” she decides to herself. “So I can’t wear his badge because it would burn a resentful hole in my apron. I know whether I’m ready to have it or not, better than anyone. And I’m not.” Toward the end there is the usual catastrophe when the hospital’s old smokestack falls in a storm, landing on an ambulance, and Lindsay, who is on the admitting desk in the ED with Dr. Findon, crawls through the broken window in the ambulance door and gives the trapped patient inside a hypodermic of morphine, talked through the procedure by Dr. Findon—and later she asks to be marked off for having given an injection, the spunky lass! When she is on night duty, she uses the quiet hours to study her butt off, because she is deeply passionate about medicine, much more so than surgery: “The way I saw it, medicine was so much more complicated and important than merely tailoring people’s insides neatly. Medicine took skill, and brains, and patience, and selflessness.” 

The writing here is not so much laugh-out-loud funny but just constantly and quietly sparkling: “I thought our off-duty time was a mad scheme to let us relax,” Lindsay says to a chum who wants to use her time to study; “I spend my life in here, mopping up Sister Badger’s casualties. Better women then you have wept upon this manly bosom, I can assure you,” Jack tells Lindsay after he finds her crying in the linen closet on a particularly bad day; “I expected to pass out, and I didn’t. There was too much competition,” Lindsay says of her first day in the OR, in which the surgeon faints; “Thanks for mopping the fevered brow,” Lindsay says to a friend when she’s recovering from the chimney crash. The ending is a true, rare prize in VNRN literature, in which Dr. Findon tells Lindsay that one of her most attractive qualities for him is her dedication to nursing. He gives her a Gloria Steinem–worthy speech about her rights to be “a person in your own right,” and agrees to wait for her to finish her three years of training before they marry (though in retrospect it’s not clear why they can’t marry while she’s a student). I dropped bona fide tears at multiple points through this book, the ending most of all. This book is not to be missed; if Lindsay Wood is only a junior pro, author Olive Norton is a pro of the most senior sort, and if her many other nurse heroines are even half as perfect as Lindsay, I look forward to meeting them.