By Fern Shepard
(pseud. Florence Stonebraker), ©1965
The man in her life was tall, blond Dr. Paul Anderson. Nurse Nora Hilton had fallen in love with the young surgeon almost from the moment they met. Their marriage plans were a lovely dream—right up to the moment when he lost faith in his surgical skill and, without warning, shut Nora out of his life. Stunned and hurt, she lost herself in her work. When a handsome, wealthy patient begged her to marry him, she was tempted. But could she ever really love him—when her heart belonged to another man?
“Don’t you know that some of the most fascinating women in history have been in their late thirties or early forties?”
“He had gone over to wherever it was they kept those poverty-stricken hill kids.”
“Bobby was a high-strung, nervous child .… It made Nora sick all through to watch him growing into a highly neurotic child in a constant state of anxiety. It was his mother’s fault.”
“You aren’t eating your frogs’ legs, honey.”
“Sometimes he wondered if he could be turning into a psycho.”
“She thought drearily, it’s probably my fate to end up another disgruntled, neurotic spinster who will be highly regarded as a dedicated nurse.”
The titles are a huge part of the mystique of the vintage nurse romance novel. Arctic Nurse, Ski Resort Nurse, Jane Arden Space Nurse, Surf Safari Nurse, Hootenanny Nurse—how can you resist something like that? So between the title and the fabulous cover, Ozark Nurse had set itself a high standard to reach. It doesn’t quite make it, but like I said, it was a pretty high bar.
For starters, it seems to me that if you are going to call your book Ozark Nurse, you ought to have something of the actual Ozarks in the story. The only thing we find here is a passing reference to “the illiterate, poorly dressed old fellows who resided in huts and cabins in the backwoods. … These men, some of them, had never seen a bathtub. They lived in a primitive fashion, and considered themselves lucky if they had enough to eat. … They couldn’t read, write, or understand why anybody could be such a golderned fool as to go messing around up on the moon.” Well, that was easy. And once this facile and stereotypical backdrop is established in the first chapter, we never need think of the Ozarks again.
Nora lives with her widowed mother, and soon her shiftless brother Jerry, his wife Ethel, and their son Bobby move in, too, because Jerry has lost another job and doesn’t seem to feel like looking for another one. The responsibility of supporting the family falls to Nora: “She paid the food bills, the tax bills, most of the repair bills on their old house, not to mention a lot of other incidentals.” And now Jerry is pestering her to buy him a boat, which he claims is going to heal the ruptured disc in his back. The reason she continues to fork over most of her paycheck is that she is adopted, and she feels she owes it to the family to keep them all afloat.
Because of this obligation, Nora cannot accept the proposal of marriage by Dr. Paul Anderson, whom she loves madly. But at book’s open, Paul’s proposal has become as shaky as Nora’s family. He’s a pediatric surgeon, and the last four children he operated on have died. “And all four were patients whom no doctor could have saved,” we are told, but “Paul insisted on taking the once chance in a million—and he lost.” As a result, he has lost his nerve and is “going to pieces as a surgeon.” Soon he’s quit his job at the hospital and is working as a life guard. Really. If only, Nora tells him one day when she stops to visit him at his lifeguard chair, “if you had to operate, with no time to worry or wonder how it would turn out, that would do it, wouldn’t it?” Paul agrees. “But that would take a very special kind of situation. It would have to be made to order, really.” One made-to-order special kind of situation, coming up! Nora picks up the binoculars and scans the water: Is that little Bobby, choking there on the water’s edge?
One of the best points about this book is how the adoption issue is handled. At one point, Nora finally snaps and chews her family out for being such pathetic leeches, then storms off to her room. Her mother follows her, and guiltily admits that she’s let her biological children take advantage of Nora all their lives. Nora says this is as it should have been: “After all, I was only an adopted child.” Nora’s mom flames, “Don’t ever say that again! I never thought of you as adopted. You were my baby, in every sense except the physical sense, and that has little to do with maternal love.” The reason everyone leans on Nora is that “you’re the strong one,” she explains. “The rest of us are clinging vines … who can’t cope with life the way grown people should.” It doesn’t change the facts of the situation, but at least it does away with Nora’s idea that an adopted child is a second-class child. This has particular resonance for me because my sister is adopted. I never really understood that until I was about ten—she’s my sister in every way, and who actually gave birth to her is totally irrelevant to our relationship. So I was pleased to see the issue managed so well.
Fern Shepard’s writing is pretty good, and helps speed you smoothly through the book. She’s got some feisty characters in there—not the heroine, though; it seems the only VNRN characters with any real sass are always the best friends. The cover, of course, is fantastic, and if the title has little to do with the story, well, I’ll forgive this book.