By Jane Corby, ©1962
Lovely Sally Benedict had found challenge galore at busy, modern Boston Hospital. But she had no idea what lay in store when she became staff nurse at a giant mill in a small Massachusetts town. Trouble came from all directions. A tyrannical mill owner. A battle between labor and management. Pettiness and jealousy and even uglier emotions directed toward Sally as the impulsive young nurse was drawn into the problems of the workers. Meanwhile, Sally faced an even more painful problem of her own. There was attentive, charming Bill Clemens, son of the mill owner, and young Dr. Bob Royce, sarcastic, bitter, yet strangely attractive, each demanding to be the one man in her life. Sally knew who her choice should be—if only her head could control the longing of her heart.
“Why does everyone assume that a nurse and doctor who work together will surely get married?”
There are some interesting things about Staff Nurse. First of all, if men ever really did talk to women this way, women’s lib didn’t come along a moment too soon. This is not the first book in which the male characters talk to the female protagonist as if she were some sort of window dressing, to be admired for her appearance and little else, but Staff Nurse really lays it on thick. Indeed, its first words are, “Hi—Beautiful!’’ Which isn’t so horrible in and of itself, but every single man passing through the doors of the infirmary office of the Clemens Paper Company manages his tongue in a similar fashion.
This particular greeting comes from Bill Clemens, paper company mill owner, and Sally Benedict shoots back with a valiant and wasted diatribe about how she wasn’t hired for her looks, that she’s really a qualified registered nurse—and Bill responds that she can “change her status any time you’ve a mind to,” he says. “All you have to do is marry into the firm.” Next we meet Dr. Robert Royce, a crabby, “thin, intense young man” whose first words to her are, yes, another reference to her looks: “Bill Clemens missed his calling—he should have been casting director for a Broadway musical. You don’t look as if you could even make a bed properly.” She offers to show him her diploma and then skims through the highlights of her resume, but he, too, is unimpressed by her talents. Bill’s father, whom she looks after when he breaks his leg at the company picnic, tells her, “You look too pretty to be a nurse,” and one of the mill workers says, “They didn’t tell me that the nurse at this mill was such a doll. You’re a real looker, baby.” This same mill worker later flatters her with an attempted sexual assault, from which Bill rescues her. Really, it’s enough to make a woman want to burn her bra.
Sally has some ideas for the mill workers that might get her into trouble with Joe McCarthy. “To Sally, the workers at the plant were real people.” Well, that kind of thinking will get you into hot water every time. One apparent result of Sally’s meddling, which includes painting the mill walls bright colors and starting a bowling league for the employees, is that young millworker Herman Strauss starts going with Celia Armstrong, the daughter of a wealthy landowner. “You think you’re as good as anybody else,” Celia’s father tells Herman. “And the reason you’re getting so uppity is because Miss Benedict, who is supposed to be a nurse, has told you that you ought to have all the comforts and luxuries of your betters. … She has overstepped the bounds of her position and she is a disturbing element among the workers. She is destroying their morale.”
Sally also disagrees with the fact that the Clemens factory owns housing, which it rents to the workers, preventing them from achieving the American dream of home ownership. But her problem with the situation seems to stem from the fact that the workers’ houses are all painted white: “When you own their homes, when you paint their houses—the color you want them painted—and when you assume their responsibilities, you rob them of all initiative.” She persuades him to sell the houses to the workers, but this doesn’t work out so well. Those workers who can afford to buy their homes paint them blue with purple trim, or yellow with blue trim and a sapphire blue foundation, God love the poor tasteless simps. Those who can’t afford to buy are stuck with the white paint. “For the … workers whose houses are painted white, there is nothing to do but admit to their neighbors that they cannot afford to own their own homes,” Dr. Bob angrily explains to Sally. “In a way, [they] are advertising the fact that they are poor. It hurts—it hurts bitterly … it is a body blow.” By this curious argument, we should be opposed to public education because someone will be upset they didn’t get into Harvard.
The romance aspect of the book plays out disappointingly, as she goes for the wrong guy (spoiler alert), the irritable doctor who dumps on her for bettering the workers’ lives, rather than the boyish, charming factory owner who sticks up for Sally and her ideas. It must be acknowledged that Bill is mostly just pleased that production is up 1% after the mill’s walls are painted red-orange, but at least he is in favor of her changes, while Dr. Bob snaps at her, “You cannot interfere in other people’s lives—you must not interfere. You might do great harm.”
In thinking over her options, Sally believes “Bill hadn’t spoken too strongly in her defense. Of course he had objected when she said that she was going to quit, but Sally suspected that was only a matter of politeness.” This when, two pages earlier, he called her “our most valued employee. … Sally’s ideas are splendid.” It’s true he receives her letter of resignation rather cavalierly, but it turns out he’s not too upset about it because he is hoping she will marry him, in which case she’d have to quit her job anyway, since that’s what wives do. And besides, it would be awkward for her to continue as his employee after they are engaged. What she tells him is, “We look at things differently; just the way you spoke of my being a nurse shows that. It wouldn’t work, Bill. I’m sorry.” And that’s that. But it almost seems like her actual objection to Bill is that he is rich. “You didn’t turn down the Clemens’ bank account, did you?” Dr. Bob asks her. “And the mink coats—and the jewels—and the winters in Florida—and, maybe, your own plane?” She replies, “I can’t see myself in mink and jewels. And … what’s the matter with the regular passenger jet?”
Apart from its social curiosities, the book has little to offer. It’s not badly written, just disappointing. The story has no sparkle, and the frustration and utter bewilderment that the ending create undo the interest it generates with its explorations of color theory and improving the lives of the downtrodden. If it’s a socialist message you seek in your vintage nurse romance novel, chuck this book and reach for District Nurse, which really knows how to do Karl Marx proud.